'The Son' is Philipp Meyer's big Texas tale

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The oil boom town of Freer, Texas, in

The oil boom town of Freer, Texas, in 1937. Philipp Meyer's new novel follows the state's fortunes, from cattle to oil. Photo Credit: Carl Mydans/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

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THE SON, by Philipp Meyer. Ecco, 561 pp., $27.99.

In 2009, as the Great Recession was still dragging on, a young man from Baltimore published his first novel, a devastating story about the human costs of industrial ruin. The Washington Post named Philipp Meyer's "American Rust" one of the top five novels of the year. The New Yorker included Meyer on its list of the 20 best writers younger than 40. And he won a Guggenheim fellowship.

What a pleasure to see Meyer confirm all that initial enthusiasm with a second book that's even more ambitious, even more deeply rooted in our troublesome economic and cultural history.

At 561 pages, "The Son" is a long novel that bears its weight with athletic confidence. The story rotates chapter by chapter through three distinct voices, members of the McCullough family. The first voice is that of Col. Eli McCullough, speaking to a Works Progress Administration recorder on the occasion of his 100th birthday. "I was the first male child of this new republic," he claims, referring to the short-lived Republic of Texas. In 1846, his father moved the family past the line of settlement into the Comanche hunting grounds.

For those of us old enough to have watched the portrayal of Indians shift from bloodcurdling villains to romanticized victims, "The Son" arrives like a flaming arrow in the bleeding liberal heart of political correctness. The Indians who butcher Eli's family early in the novel behave with a searing degree of gleeful cruelty -- matched only by the atrocities committed by soldiers charged with exterminating them.

What follows is a spectacular captivity narrative: a boy adopted into a Comanche band, absorbed into a doomed nomadic culture that he learns to adore. "I slept when I wanted and ate when I wanted and did nothing all day that I didn't feel like doing," he says. From buffalo hunts to sexual relations to battles with Rangers and smallpox, Eli's story gallops along toward a tragic conclusion.

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We meet Eli's great-granddaughter, Jeanne Anne McCullough, on March 3, 2012, when she's 86 years old. She's lying on the floor of the living room in her colossal mansion; the air is heavy with the smell of natural gas. In these confusing final moments, Jeanne Anne's thoughts wander through the events of her remarkable life: from her beginnings as the superfluous daughter of an incompetent rancher to her fame as one of the world's wealthiest women.

What a range Meyer has: He can disembowel a living soldier with just as much color and precision as when he slights a preppy debutante at a sleepover. He shows us Texas evolving from cattle to oil, from hardscrabble grassland to unimaginable opulence. And how clever to disassociate us from this worn story by telling it from the point of view of an old woman, a woman who had no training in business and had to endure sexist condescension from the old boys' network of oilmen even long after she'd proved herself a financial genius.

Between these two larger-than-life figures crouches Peter McCullough, Eli's misanthropic son and Jeanne Anne's grandfather, otherwise known as "the great disappointment." He comes to us in a series of embittered diary entries written just before World War I when the McCulloughs finally moves with obliterating force against a Mexican family living adjacent to their omnivorous ranch.

Repelled by the racism of the era, Peter serves as a tireless critic of his father's brutality. But for all his moral superiority, he's a rather impotent character -- so troubled, so shocked, so insufferable. "You don't care for anyone but yourself and your sadness," his wife tells him. While his father and granddaughter intuit how to harness the forces transforming the world, Peter can only lament and despair -- a prairie Hamlet among the Texas Medicis.

I could no more convey the scope of "The Son" than I could capture the boundless plains of Texas. Meyer has given us an extraordinary orchestration of American history, a testament to the fact that all victors erect their empires on bones bleached by the light of self-righteousness. In her final moments, Jeanne thinks of the countless people whom her great-grandfather killed to amass his fortune: "It depended on whether you saw things through his eyes or the eyes of his victim as he pulled the trigger," she thinks. "Dead people did not have voices and this made them irrelevant."


But in this monumental novel, they're all relevant to the prosperity we enjoy today, and they all get their voices once again, if only to curse their fate.

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