Some novelists are historians by nature, whose preparations for their fiction involve serious fact-finding.
Philipp Meyer demonstrated his historian’s nature in his first novel, “American Rust,” with its setting of industrial decay in the Monongahela River Valley south of Pittsburgh. Reared in Baltimore, Meyer caught the feel, the sights and even the smells of the Mon Valley as though he were a native. Instead, he did his research.
Most important, “American Rust” nailed the character of the valley’s residents — the defeat of those who stayed and the younger generation’s determination to flee. Meyer said he conducted some of his research in the valley’s taverns, where he nursed a beer while listening to the talk of those who drank freely.
It’s a long way in many respects from Brownsville, Pa., to Brownsville, Texas, but the sense of loss is expressed just as acutely in Meyer’s ambitious new novel about the rise and fall of a Texas family. “The Son” covers a lot of ground, starting in 1836 with the birth of Eli McCullough, who built a huge expanse of South Texas land into a cattle and oil empire, and finishing in 2012 with a death signifying Meyer’s message “that what goes around, comes around.”
My initial take on “The Son” was “Blood Meridian” as told by Edna Ferber, but then the author of “Giant” appears midway through Meyer’s book, so it became apparent that he was on to something larger than Ferber’s 1952 potboiler. And while it was Cormac McCarthy who brutally preached that America was founded in a river of blood, Meyer gets down in the dirt and gore, the rapes and the tortures that fed “the tree of liberty” called the United States.
After raping and slaughtering a woman and her daughter, a band of Comanche kidnapped the woman’s sons, 8-year-old Eli and his brother. Meyer’s version of how a white child grows into the culture of a Comanche warrior is so vivid, violent, heartless and tender at the same time that I often put the book down to recover from the scenes, then picked it up, eager to follow the narrative.
Meyer has structured the novel through the voices of several generations of McCulloughs — Eli; his son Peter; and his great-granddaughter Jeannie Ann, later called J.A. She eventually rises to control the family business, but no chapters compare to the saga of Eli as he moves through the 19th century.
Peter’s life has the strained ring of melodrama to it, while J.A.’s struggle to advance her cause in the patriarchy of the McCulloughs is empty of tenderness.
The overarching theme of “The Son” is loss, from the natural abundance and beauty of the land to the cultures of the American Indians and the descendants of the Spanish conquerors of Mexico, all brutally wiped out by the “sons” of the Lone Star state.
It’s a too-familiar — and depressing — tale that finds a fresh interpretation from the pen of Philipp Meyer.
Bob Hoover is the retired book editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.