Big Texas novel truly epic

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - ENTERTAINMENT -

AMER­I­CAN au­thors of big nov­els on national themes are of­ten light­ning rods for crit­ics who see th­ese works as symp­toms of a com­pet­i­tive, typ­i­cally male, ob­ses­sion with be­ing the alpha in the lit­er­ary wolf pack.

The Son, by ris­ing lit­er­ary star Philipp Meyer, sug­gests that a lit­tle com­pe­ti­tion can be a good thing. Some­times, as this bril­liant epic of Texas and Amer­ica shows, an author who sets out to write the Great Amer­i­can Novel cre­ates a truly great Amer­i­can novel.

Meyer, whose widely praised first novel, Amer­i­can Rust, was set in con­tem­po­rary rust belt Penn­syl­va­nia, tells three sto­ries in The Son. The sto­ries il­lus­trate three con­quests: of the Co­manche rulers of the south­west plains, of the heirs of the globe-span­ning Span­ish em­pire, and the earth it­self.

It’s a vi­o­lent and fa­tal­is­tic work, at times read­ing like Cor­mac McCarthy mi­nus the Bib­li­cal ca­dences. Like McCarthy’s mas­ter­piece Blood Merid­ian, The Son posits war as an fun­da­men­tal part of the hu­man con­di­tion. And like The De­cline and Fall of the Ro­man Em­pire, from which Meyer bor­rows an epi­graph, The Son takes a long view of his­tory.

“Of course we are not stupid,” Meyer’s ear­li­est char­ac­ter, a Huck Finn-style boy named Eli is told in 1849 by the Co­manche chief who has cap­tured him. “The land did not al­ways be­long to the Co­manche. Many years ago it was Tonkawa land, but we liked it, so we killed the Tonkawa and took it from them.”

This theme of dis­pos­ses­sion (the An­g­los dis­pos­sess the Mex­i­cans and the Co­manches, who had dis­pos­sessed the Apaches and Tonkawas, who had dis­pos­sessed oth­ers be­fore them), is re­in­forced in the novel’s sec­ond thread, which fol­lows Eli’s son Peter dur­ing a con­flict with the last pow­er­ful Mex­i­can fam­ily in the dis­puted bor­der ter­ri­tory.

The third sto­ry­line fol­lows Peter’s grand­daugh­ter, Jean­nie, as she moves the fam­ily busi­ness from Texas cat­tle into the global oil in­dus­try. The Jean­nie chap­ters show how the ra­pa­cious­ness de­vel­oped along the fron­tier fu­els global events, from a CIA-backed coup in Iran to the sav­ings-and-loan cri­sis of the 1980s.

Though there’s noth­ing Edenic about Meyer’s vi­sion of the ear­lier in­hab­i­tants of Texas, The Son is, in ways, a story of a fall from grace. Sur­vey­ing the dam­age caused by over­graz­ing and pon­der­ing the fu­ture im­pact of oil drilling, pa­tri­arch Eli tells Peter at one point:

“I don’t have to tell you what this land used to look like … And you don’t have to tell me that I am the one who ru­ined it. Which I did, my own hands, and ru­ined for­ever.”

The Son is also a novel about Amer­i­can leg­ends. Lit­er­ary al­lu­sions and re­flec­tions on life’s im­i­ta­tion of art oc­cur sev­eral times, such as when Edna Fer­ber, author of the novel that will be made into the James Dean Texas epic Gi­ant, pays a visit.

Texas oil­men are so de­lighted to see them­selves re­flected on the big screen in Gi­ant that they “be­gan to in­vent over-the-top man­ner­isms, throw­ing sil­ver coins out of the win­dows of their lim­ou­sines, tak­ing $20,000 baths in cham­pagne. Maybe it was no dif­fer­ent than any other time. The fron­tier was not yet set­tled when Buf­falo Bill be­gan his shows and the Colonel (Eli’s later hon­orific) al­ways com­plained about the mo­ment his cow­boys be­gan to read nov­els about cow­boys; they all lost track of which was true, the books or their own lives.”

You won’t read a more thoughtful, more beau­ti­fully writ­ten or more har­row­ing book about Amer­ica.

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