Reviewed by Miles Smith IV
Texans, and Americans at large, sense that there was, at some time, a dark, bloody land that destroyed and created cultures, people, places, and even ideas. Texans know this land as their Lone Star State. But to many Texans and many southerners this brutal place depicted so viscerally in Philip Meyer’s The Son is hardly recognizable. There is no Alamo, no humble pioneers, no brave rescues of whites from Indians, and no happy intermingling with Mexican-Americans. Instead the Indians nearly always win against the settlers; the humble pioneers are in fact equally violent and more avaricious; and Anglo and Tejano fight vendettas more for Sicily than for the American Southwest. In Meyer’s beautifully haunting novel, modern Texas is created less by Crockett, Houston, and Travis and more by intertwined families who commit a series of original sins down through generations.
Meyer introduces the McCullough family through their eventual patriarch, Eli. He lived the difficult but intimate life of the Texas frontier with his family. Young Eli is, from the beginning, an introspective son who seems suspicious of his brother—who desires an education above all else—and his trusting but ultimately naïve sister. Their father, helping to secure Texas from Indians and horse thieves, remains conspicuously absent. The McCulloughs quickly seem fated for the same end that so many Texas pioneer families experienced. A gruesome Indian raid seals their fate. Comanches kill Eli’s mother and sister, leaving he and his brother alive because of their general usefulness to the Indian Band. Eli eventually becomes the lone remnant of his family. He lives with the Indians, adopts their ways, and becomes an endearing yet monstrous hybrid of the best and worst of White and Comanche society.
The Son is narrated through a series of diary or journal entries stretching across an entire century. The chronology skips around, but the patient reader quickly discovers that the titular son is Eli’s son, Peter. Unlike his violent grandfather, Peter is a testament to the domestication and modernization of Texas sin the early twentieth century. Whereas his grandfather and father helped pacify Texas, Peter lives and works to prosper his now-wealthy family. Peter becomes a window into Texans’ insecure modern identity. His staid marriage to a socially prominent woman seems only to increase his languor. Unlike his father, Peter is tortured by the violence carried out by his family against a prominent Tejano family sharing the prime cattle grounds of the Rio Grande Valley. Peter’s ennui takes social and eventually sexual form. After his father—now Col. Eli McCullough—destroys a local Tejano grandee and his family, Peter takes in a young Latino woman mistakenly spared from his father’s carnage.
Eli’s violence passes through Peter to his grandson, Charles. Embarrassed by his father’s humanity, Charles sets out to replicate his ferocious grandfather. Charles attacks everything he sets out to. Business, family, and place are conquered, and pacified. His marriage is a sham. His wife leaves him to raise their children. Charles’s daughter, Jeanne Anne, lives and exemplifies the consequences of the McCulloughs’ history. A legacy of violence never seems far away from the McCullough family.
Meyer’s work is a welcome addition to Texas’s already impressive literary tradition. The originality of his work should not be understated. It lacks the overall joviality of Larry McMurtry’s work but still manages moments of humor. Meyer’s use of violence is less subtle than Cormac McCarthy’s equally forceful but more sparing Blood Meridian. Meyer has written a classic. The Son earned a nod as a Pulitzer finalist in 2014, but its greatest strength remains its ability to confront Texans with a narrative of their past at once unknown and long-forgotten.
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