Enthralling saga is bigger than Texas
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’’.