Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Big Texas novel truly epic

  • Print

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.

Bob Armstrong is a Winnipeg writer whose only trip to Texas was more about six-strings than six-shooters.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 20, 2013 A1

Fact Check

Fact Check

Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories?
Please use the form below and let us know.

* Required
  • Please post the headline of the story or the title of the video with the error.

  • Please post exactly what was wrong with the story.

  • Please indicate your source for the correct information.

  • Yes


  • This will only be used to contact you if we have a question about your submission, it will not be used to identify you or be published.

  • Cancel

Having problems with the form?

Contact Us Directly
  • Print

You can comment on most stories on You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

You can comment on most stories on You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective April 16, 2010.


Make text: Larger | Smaller


Downtown BIZ Watch patrol along Main Street

View more like this

Photo Store Gallery

  • A pelican comes in for a landing Wednesday afternoon on the Red River at Lockport, Manitoba - Standup photo- June 27, 2012   (JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)
  • Down the Hatch- A pelican swallows a fresh fish that it caught on the Red River near Lockport, Manitoba. Wednesday morning- May 01, 2013   (JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

View More Gallery Photos


Are you concerned about the number of homicides so far this year?

View Results

Ads by Google