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.