En­thralling saga is big­ger than Texas

The Son

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Geordie Wil­liamson

By Philipp Meyer Vin­tage Aus­tralia, 561pp, $32.95

IN the late 1940s, a Pulitzer prize-win­ning nov­el­ist made her way to Texas, where she in­ter­viewed a great cu­rios­ity: Jeanne Anne McCul­lough, the fe­male head of a big oil fam­ily. The nov­el­ist, Edna Fer­ber, was real. But her sub­ject is the cre­ation of Philipp Meyer, and it could eas­ily be his re­sponse to the re­sults of their en­counter that fil­ters down through the con­scious­ness of the tough-minded Texan: The woman’s book came out later and was made into a movie star­ring James Dean. It was one long ex­ag­ger­a­tion. It made ev­ery­one look like clowns, as if they had stum­bled dumbly into wealth, as if the state was noth­ing but back­woods ty­coons with­out two brain cells to rub to­gether.

Meyer’s sec­ond novel shares with Gi­ant (to give the film its ti­tle) widescreen gor­geous­ness and epic du­ra­tion, but that is all. In­stead his ac­count of three gen­er­a­tions of the McCul­lough fam­ily, its rise from noth­ing to great for­tune and power across 175 years, is sus­tained by a sav­age, elo­quent and de­tailed ad­her­ence to the truth of those times.

The re­sult is one of the best re­cent Amer­i­can nov­els and proof, if it were re­quired, that Meyer’s 2009 de­but Amer­i­can Rust marked the ar­rival of a hugely tal­ented author, one whose im­mac­u­lately ren­dered re­al­ism was bent to­wards a pro­ject of national ex­am­i­na­tion.

Where the dom­i­nant in­tel­lec­tual tone of The Son is one of his­tor­i­cal pes­simism — its epi­graph is taken from The De­cline and Fall of the Ro­man Em­pire — the world the novel de­scribes is unashamedly en­thralling: this is Ed­ward Gib­bon shot by John Ford.

Take Eli McCul­lough, founder and pa­tri­arch of the fam­ily. He is born in 1836, the first male child to be born af­ter the dec­la­ra­tion of Texan in­de­pen­dence (its time as a sov­er­eign na­tion would last only a decade) from Mex­ico.

Eli grows to young adult­hood on the pre­car­i­ous edge of North Amer­i­can civil­i­sa­tion, along­side rem­nants of the old Span­ishMex­i­can aris­toc­racy, where his fam­ily is the tar­get of In­dian bands who raid white set­tlers and Mex­i­cans alike. It is dur­ing one such en­counter that Eli’s mother and sis­ter are gang raped and mur­dered, while he and his brother are cap­tured by Co­manche as slaves and hostages for ran­som.

The sec­tions of The Son deal­ing with Eli’s time among the Co­manche are a thrilling ed­u­ca­tion in oth­er­ness. He proves a gifted young war­rior (for a white boy, at least) and even­tu­ally achieves a mea­sure of in­te­gra­tion into the group. It is through Eli’s eyes that we come to know the fi­nal days of a so­ci­ety whose re­la­tion­ship with place has been formed across count­less gen­er­a­tions.

Meyer’s ac­count of ev­ery­thing from the use of buf­falo car­casses to Co­manche nam­ing sys­tems and the sex­ual pol­i­tics gov­ern­ing in­tra-tribal adul­tery has a ob­ses­sive qual­ity that might be de­scribed as Melvil­lean. Yet, like the In­di­ans and their buf­falo, The Son proves to be a novel in which ev­ery last scrap of bone has its use.

For ex­am­ple, it will be the skills and at­ti­tudes Eli in­her­its from his time as an In­dian cap­tive that later help es­tab­lish him in the white world, first as a sol­dier dur­ing the Civil War and later as a mer­ce­nary who is paid in pack­ets of Texas land. This land pro­vides wealth in the form of cat­tle and then, once the an­i­mals have de­nuded the great grass plains that drew early ar­rivals to the re­gion, in oil. It is the need to pro­tect and en­hance such wealth that jus­ti­fies the fi­nal erad­i­ca­tion of those older in­hab­i­tants of the land.

For Peter McCul­lough — Eli’s son, though as dif­fer­ent in kind as it is pos­si­ble to be — the crimes com­mit­tedto pro­tect McCul­lough land are more than iso­lated in­ci­dents. They rep­re­sent the ‘‘ over­turn­ing of an an­cient or­der, the re­mak­ing of things for a new world’’. An ed­u­cated man com­pared with his fa­ther, Peter clings to the idea that the ‘‘ his­tory of hu­man­ity is marked by a sin­gle in­ex­orable move­ment — from an­i­mal instinct to­ward ra­tio­nal thought, from in­born be­hav­iour to­ward learned be­hav­iour and ac­quired knowl­edge’’.

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