The go-to Great Modernist Western Novels are Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove and Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, with Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man and Oakley Hall’s Warlock galloping alongside them. But I’d also add James Carlos Blake’s wonderfully drenched In the Rogue Blood, Elmore Leonard’s typically sere Last Stand at Saber River, and, now, Philipp Meyer’s no-sprawl epic The Son, a book at once aware of the anti-romantic tradition set in place by those earlier novels, and confident enough to fracture it.
In The Son, Eli McCullough, from a family hoping to find sustenance and purpose in late-19th-century Texas, is taken captive by Comanche Indians. His brother was snatched along with Eli, but he dies quickly. The adolescent Eli, by contrast, doesn’t merely survive but eventually thrives, learning how to shoot a bow and arrow, how to kill any creature needed for food, how to tan a hide, and how to overcome his first Indian name, Tiehteti-taibo: “It meant pathetic little white man,” Eli informs us with a mixture of rueful pride that serves him well during his captivity. Eli will, over the course of this long, exciting novel, eventually leave the Comanche tribe and become known as “the Colonel,” the patriarch of a dynasty take unwarranted pride in its whiteness, and determined to never be considered “pathetic” or merely “little.”
Meyer structures his book in alternating, time-shuffling sections that focus on Eli; his son, Peter, who helps build the family fortune in Texas cattle and oil and embarks on a doomed relationship with a working-class Mexican girl; and Eli’s great-granddaughter, Jeanne Anne, who, born in 1926, carries the tale to the end of the 20th century in a conclusion no less bloody, relentless, and startling than the way this story begins. James Dean and LBJ put in appearances. Turtle blood is quaffed (Eli: “I thought my mother wouldn’t be happy if she saw me drinking turtle blood like a wild Indian.”).
Philipp Meyer’s first novel was American Rust (2008), an admirably terse, tough story about the consequences of our modern faltering economy. With The Son, Meyer grows expansive without becoming windy – this is not what has become commonly referred to in book-review clichés as a saga, one of those fundamentally sentimental stories in which floridly drawn characters love and brawl their way around an author’s research-library historical details. It’s something much sharper, with Meyer’s prose cutting across the page: “Nuukaru, who had been coaching me on the skinning, put his knife into his sheath and was into his saddle in three long steps. I had misplaced my bow and by the time I got mounted the entire party was riding to haul hell out of its shuck.”
Instead, The Son explores ideas: What it means to be a success in America, and how much ruthlessness is required to achieve that definition; how the legacies of fathers place the burden of history on the shoulders of sons who’d like to shrug them off; how women can find their own kind of power within male structures without losing their souls. At the same time, The Son is tremendously exciting. It is packed not only with thrilling escapes and rescues, daring love affairs, and comic moments that slide without warning into chilling horrors, but also with vivid descriptions of how to survive under the constant threat of death, as well as the steady encroachment of corrupting modernity: “The frontier was not yet settled when Buffalo Bill began his shows and the Colonel 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 could snip and stitch together just the Son sections devoted to Eli learning Comanche skills and have a superb lean Western rimmed with historical tragedy. But the sections chronicling Jeanne’s steady, stubborn rise to authority over men who initially don’t respect her, and Peter’s conflicted agony over the racism that helps consolidate his family’s influence, add resonance to Eli’s story as well, adding pathos to his observation, after he’s grown old, “There are many things I wanted to save: the Indians, the buffalo, a prairie where you could look for twenty miles and not see a fencepost. But time has passed those things by.”
Meyer takes the long view, and ends up connecting the ways in which each generation of McCulloughs resembles or breaks from the previous one. What these people have in common is, each in his or her way, a stubborn flintiness that leads to both worldly success and private pain. Meyer keeps distinct the alternating narrative voices of Eli, Peter (a more callow, sensitive yet no less industrious, intelligent man than his father), and Jeanne Anne (who starts out a young and sheltered and matures into shrewdness and a tragic cynicism). Each member of this McCullough family is tested in her or her own way, in a manner distinctive to his or her own era. Not one of them is found wanting.