Review: The Son, By Philipp Meyer

Texas saga is more Gibbon than 'Dallas'

Felicity Capon
Saturday 27 July 2013 18:00

The American author Philipp Meyer's second novel, The Son, begins with the words of the English historian Edward Gibbon: "... the vicissitudes of fortune, which spares neither man nor the proudest of his works ... buries empires and cities in a common grave". These timeless words could not be more apt for Meyer's astonishing novel, which charts the birth of Texas through the lives of one family. The rise and fall of Native Americans, Mexicans, and white settlers, who violently contest this vast land, fulfil Gibbon's prophecy with ruthless accuracy.

Out of the almost perpetual feuding rises the powerful McCullough family, headed by the implacable patriarch, Eli McCullough. The McCullough ranch eventually extends to a quarter of a million acres, thanks to a lucrative cattle boom, an even more lucrative oil boom, and a good deal of theft, corruption and brute force. In fact, most of the characters need little reminder of Gibbon's prescient words. "That is how the Garcias got the land, by cleaning off the Indians," comments Eli with indifference, "and that is how we had to get it. And one day that is how someone will get it from us."

Eli is born in 1836, the year "that bore the Republic of Texas out of Mexican tyranny". His story begins when he is taken captive during a Comanche raid. Details of Comanche customs, sexual conventions, warfare and an impressive passage that details the myriad uses of a buffalo carcass all combine to make Eli's narrative utterly absorbing.

Intertwined with Eli's story is that of his great-granddaughter Jeanne Anne, a feisty Scarlett O'Hara figure, who inherits the family fortune as it roars into the oil-soaked mid 20th century. Through Jeanne's story, the sheer scale of Meyer's epic becomes fully apparent. When Kennedy is assassinated in Dallas, Jeanne is unfazed: "As for JFK, it had not surprised her. The year he died, there were still living Texans who had seen their parents scalped by Indians."

Yet for all Meyer's fabulous John Wayne-esque panoramas, he never overlooks the intimate details of human relationships. Interrupting Eli and Jeanne's narratives is Eli's son Peter. Despised by his father, Peter occupies the scant moral high ground of the novel, tortured by his family's bloody legacy.

Meyer has achieved something extraordinary with The Son. At times it is difficult to believe that Meyer wrote this novel in the present day, such is his ability to bring to life characters submerged under hundreds of years of history. Nor is this a novel that will only resonate in the US. Like Gibbon, Meyer tells us something about our past that remains an inescapable part of our future: a warning over our obsession with identity and territory that remains as pertinent as at any other time in history, when one group of people dared defy another.

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