Phillipp Meyer’s American Rust was my book of the year a couple of years back, and he was my author discovery at the same time, so I ran to The Son.
I was disappointed at first. High expectations can be dangerous, I guess. The why’s of my letdown in a moment. I think a bit of summary is necessary before I continue with my responses.
American Rust takes place in a closely circumscribed time and place—the “rust” is about the rust belt and its effects on the society coping with it. The Son is a saga of enormous scope, even though it takes place pretty much in Texas and a bit over the Mexican border, but it encompasses over a century and a half. We begin in 1836—the year that the Texas Republic was founded and that the patriarch of the McCulloch family was born. The novel doesn’t end until 2011, and even then, it’s not really over. The said patriarch is kidnapped and his family slaughtered by commanches when he’s youngster. The opening chapter introduces us to him as he reaches the century mark. We then drop in on him from time to time in various chapters, and we trace his enduring influence as his descendants deal with what he wrought. The historical panorama moves from the obliteration of the Indians in that wild land to the humbling of the Mexicans to the cattle empires to the oil empires and beyond.
The son in question is Peter McCulloch, and it’s his journal that is the pivotal record of the book. That all said and summarized, let’s return to my commentary.
What put me off at first was an excess of detail that stalled the story. I didn’t, I think, need to know quite so much about how the Commanches constructed a bow or tanned a hide or taught youngsters how to shoot and ride. Meyer is a ferocious researcher, and it shows. A bit too much, to my mind, in both in the Indian chapters and in the oil well drilling chapters. Added to that was the sense of sometimes being often set afloat without a compass. There’s family tree on the frontispiece, and boy, do you need it. I appreciate its being there, but I thought that Meyer might have been more kind to at least this reader by weaving more references here and there in the text instead of requiring me to interrupt my fictive dream to look up the who’s related to whom and why. All the major characters get their own chapters. Three of them have long lives and would merit a novel of their own. With all that material to cover, I don’t think I’m playing the dumb old guy to ask for a bit more guidance on such a long journey.
However, In terms of action, insight, language, and just plain first-rate writing The Son isn’t just a book. It’s an event in itself, and all said and done, a significant one.
As I said, Peter is the son in question. He stands out because he hates and combats the carnage, greed, and ethos of the wealth- and empire-building mentality that makes his family the dominant force in its corner of the Texas world. Others who object over the years manage some kind of flight or avoidance (though they still, conveniently, manage to partake of the riches), but Peter stays put, grouses, whines, writes in his journal and does what he can to slow the sometimes murderous train of avarice as it barrels through the years. Ineffective and dithering though he is, Peter is the one that commands our sympathies. In biblical terms (my own observation, not Meyer’s) he’s the son who stays home while the prodigal gallivants. He’s the guy with feelings, the one disgusted by the immorality surrounding him. From time to time, one character or another will bespeak the historical truth that 1) everyone who has land took it from someone else—The Comanches took it from the Apaches, the Mexicans from them; the Anglos from them. And whoever has it at the moment thinks he/she deserves to hold on to it against all comers. Peter recognizes that reality, but doesn’t accept it as inevitable. Or, more properly, just doesn’t choose to participate. What finally shakes him loose from his ennui and inertia is love. A forbidden one. It’s at the point which that love enters the story, to me, that it really takes off. I’ll say no more about it. The book itself is the place to experience it.
By the end, then, Meyers had not only erased by disappointment but lifted me to the same plane of admiration and delight that so enamored me in American Rust. I suspect some Texans are going to find this portrait of the frontier-cum-oil baronies offensive, and they may be justified because I’m sure there’s a lot left out. But what’s there is there, and not only in Texas. Like everything else Texan, they do what we all do, but in a much bigger way. Thus, does Meyers as well do what all novelists do, but in a much bigger (and, I must say better) way than most.