THE AMERICAN WEST (mostly): Fact and Fiction (mostly fiction)

"NOBODY GETS TO BE A COWBOY FOREVER." -- Chet Rollins (Jack Palance) in MONTE WALSH (NG, 1970)

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Sunday, August 3, 2014

THE SON: A Novel by Phillipp Meyer

Phillipp Meyer’s The Son, a sprawling multigenerational epic set in Texas (which is always a good place to locate epics, especially the sprawling variety), begins with the family patriarch, Col. Eli McCullough. 

Most will be familiar with the date of my birth. The Declaration of Independence that bore the Republic of Texas out of Mexican tyranny was ratified March 2, 1836, in a humble shack at the edge of the Brazos. Half the signatories were malarial; the other half had come to Texas to escape a hangman’s noose. I was the first male child of this new republic.”

He grows up to become one tough hombre. He has not only seen it all, he has lived it. In his lifetime, he was a Comanche captive, Texas Ranger, Confederate colonel, cattle baron, and oil tycoon. Obviously, it had to be a long life -- and it was – one hundred years.  How a young helpless boy at the mercy of his Comanche captors eventually became a wealthy tyrant wielding almost absolute power is at the heart of the novel.

My birthday. Today, without the help of any whiskey, I have reached the conclusion: I am no one. Looking back over my forty-five years I see nothing worthwhile – what I had mistaken for a soul appears more like a black abyss – I have allowed others to shape me as they pleased. To ask the Colonel I am the worst son he has ever had….

Ron Charles perfectly characterizes Peter in his review in the Washington Post as "a prairie Hamlet among the Texas Medicis." There is no way that the son can possibly surpass the father when it comes to achievements, or does he even want to. Instead, he is the novel's conscience and its critic. He deplores his father's status as a giant in the land, but most of all he hates how his father has achieved his status and the harsh measures he resorts to in order to maintain it. There is no reward for such views. In fact, most people see him as a weak man -- and that includes his father.

If she were a better person she would not leave her family a dime; a few million, maybe, something to pay for college or if they got sick. She had grown up knowing that if a drought went on another year, or the ticks got worse, or the flies, if any single thing went wrong, the family would not eat. Of course, they had oil by then; it was an illusion. But her father had acted as if it was true, and she had believed it, and so it was.

even as a child she’d been mostly alone. Her family had owned the town. People made no sense to her. Men, with whom she had everything in common, did not want her around. Women, with whom she had nothing in common, smiled too much, laughed too loud, and mostly reminded her of small dogs, their lives lost in interior decorating and other peoples’ outfits. There had never been a place for a person like her.

If the Colonel had a soul mate, it was his great-granddaughter, Jeanne Anne. He had no respect and little love for his son, Peter, or his grandson, Charles, who was Jeanne Anne’s father. However, he doted on Jeanne Anne and she, who never knew her grandfather and also had little respect for her father, returned her great-grandfather’s affection.

As far as the Colonel was concerned, Peter was too soft and idealistic and in his own way, so was Charles, who was too tied to cattle and the land. The Colonel understood that down through the ages through war and conquest the land had been won and lost many times and he believed that it was subject to occurring again, that historical progress was a matter of destroying what had come before. Therefore, one should extract what one could from the land while one could. Charles wanted only to be a cattleman, but cattle ranching was a losing proposition. The Colonel’s solution – and Jeanne Anne’s – was to drill, drill for oil.

Spindletop, January 10, 1901; Texas' first big one

Comanche warriors, 1892

Despite his capture as a boy by the Comanches and their initial cruel treatment of him, the colonel learned not only to respect them, but also to view them as family.  They were practically the only people that he held in esteem. 

Certainly not the Texas Rangers, with whom he was forced to serve.

Rangering was not a career so much as a way to die young and get paid nothing for doing it; your chances of surviving a year with a company were about the same as not.  The lucky ones ending up in an unmarked hole.  The rest lost their topknot. By then the days of the ace units … were over.  What was left was an assortment of bankrupt soldiers and adventure seekers, convicts and God’s abandons.

Early Rangers
He viewed the poor  Mexicans of the area as people whose labor was to be exploited.  But he also believed that the prosperous Mexicans who owned land were to be exploited as well.  He believed that their time had passed and he viewed their property as fair game for the taking -- and he took.  

His opinion of most of the whites in the area wasn't much higher either, with one exception. He had good things to say about the German settlers living around the town of Fredericksburg:

"Before the Germans came, it was thought impossible to make butter in a southern climate.  It was also thought impossible to grow wheat.  A slave economy does that to the human mind, but the Germans, who had not been told otherwise, arrived and began churning first-rate butter and raising heavy crops of the noble cereal, which they sold to their dumbfounded neighbors at a high profit.

Your German had no allergy to work, which was conspicuous when you looked at his possessions.  If, upon passing some field, you noticed the soil was level and the rows straight, the land belonged to a German.  If the field was full of rocks, if the rows appeared to have been laid by a blind Indian, if it was December and the cotton had not been picked, you knew the land was owned by one of the local whites, who had drifted over from Tennessee and hoped that the bounties of Dame Nature would, by some witchery, yield him up a slave.”


Phillipp Meyer is one of those overnight successes whose success was not overnight.  His first published novel was the critically acclaimed American Rust, but it was his third novel.  The first he didn't attempt to sell and the second he couldn't sell.

Now, The Son has garnered even more praise than his debut, even to the extent of being nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.  What comes next?  In an interview, he said that he planned his next book to be combined with his first two in what he called "an American trilogy."  He gave no clues regarding the subject matter of the third book.



"The greatest things about The Son are its scope and ambition, not its strictly literary mettle. It’s an enveloping, extremely well-wrought, popular novel with passionate convictions about the people, places and battles that it conjures. That ought to be enough." -- Janet Maslin, New York Times 

"I could no more convey the scope of The Son than I could capture the boundless plains of Texas. With this family that stretches from our war with Mexico to our invasion of Iraq, Meyer has given us an extraordinary orchestration of American history, a testament to the fact that all victors erect their empires on bones bleached by the light of self-righteousness." -- Ron Charles, Washington Post

"These are not heroic transplants from the present, disguised in buckskin and loincloths.  They are unrepentant, greedy, often homicidal, lost souls, blindly groping their way through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries." -- Will Blythe, New York Times Book Review

"Meyer's tale is vast, volcanic, prodigious in violence, intermittently hard to fathom, not infrequently hard to stomach, and difficult to ignore." -- Boston Globe

"The Son drives home one hard and fascinating truth about American life: None of us belong here.  We just have it on loan until the next civilization comes around." -- Atlanta Journal-Constitution

"It may not be the Great American Novel, but it certainly is a damn good one." -- Entertainment Weekly

Now for an irritating fly in the soothing ointment of praise:

"On one level, this large-canvas family saga by award-winning novelist Philipp Meyer resembles nothing more than a patchwork of derivative fiction — sort of Edna Ferber meets Thomas Berger meets James Michener, with a dash of Dallas and a touch of The Big Valley thrown in for flavor.

"It’s also a none-too-subtle bashing of Texas history, myths and legends, with a derisive editorial condemnation of all things Texan or Western." -- Clay Reynolds, Dallas Morning News

I must add that other reviews that I read in other Texas publications were positive.  In fact, the above is the only negative review that I found anywhere.

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