I’ve been to Texas on so many newspaper errands — writing about murder, natural disasters, immigration tensions, cowboy politicians — I ought to know the territory.
But the Texas fixed in my mind is not the Texas of those recollections. That place has been supplanted by the imaginings of three great American writers, the vivid, gripping, violent, unforgettable worlds created by Cormac McCarthy, Larry McMurtry and, with the publication of The Son, Philipp Meyer.
Meyer’s hefty second novel chronicles 163 years of Texas history through generations of the McCullough family. The narrative, in three disparate, intermittent voices, rotates from Eli, captured at age 13 and adopted by the fearsome Comanches; to his disaffected son Peter, born in 1870, crippled by guilt and introspection (traits that didn’t go well with the brutal and bigoted ethos of the Texas borderland); to Jeanne Anne, Peter’s granddaughter, born in 1926, who built the McCullough holdings into a empire even as she was underestimated and disparaged by the swaggering ol’ boys of the Texas oil industry. “It had never stopped being strange that what was praised in men — the need to be good at everything, to be someone important — would be considered a character flaw in her.”
And it’s a story, like so much of American history, of ghastly ethnic conflict. The magic of Meyer’s writing is that he can describe the Comanche’s gang rapes and murders of Eli’s mother and sister and the torture and killing of Eli’s brother in such ghastly detail. Yet he leads the reader to understand, even admire the tribe’s fierce, free range ethic. In the blunt, unvarnished voice of Eli: “The Spanish had been in Texas hundreds of years but nothing had come of it. Since Columbus they had been conquering all the natives that stood in their way and while I have never met an Aztec, they must have been a pack of mincing choirboys. The Lipan Apaches stopped the old conquistadors in their tracks. Then came the Comanche. The earth had seen nothing like them since the Mongols; they drove the Apaches into the sea, destroyed the Spanish Army, turned Mexico into a slave market. I once saw Comanches herding villagers along the Pecos, hundreds at a time, no different from the way you’d drive cattle.”
Meyer has created a portrait of Texas history, written in startling contrast to the voice, setting and narrow scope of his first novel, American Ru st, a misadventure of two young men, set in a dying steel town in contemporary western Pennsylvania.
Meyer’s writing may not quite capture the lyrical power of McCarthy (who does?) or the captivating characters of McMurtry (who does?) but he comes damn close. But what he brings, like some Texas version of Herman Melville, is a stunning array of details about the nomadic Indians and frontier life and the oil patch. Meyer reportedly read some 350 histories to gird his narrative. And it rings true.
The violence can seem relentless. Eli, in his time running with the Comanches, readily adapts to their callous ways. “The Delaware was lying on his side, and I rolled him onto his belly. I put my foot on his back and grabbed his hair, and he raised his arm to stop me, but I cut all the way around. He was slapping at my hand the whole time.”
Meyer is just as unsparing as he describes a white lynch mob in 1915, descending on a Mexican-owned ranch neighboring the McCullough land, murdering the extended family for the sin of horse thievery, though the actual thieves were not in the vicinity. The incident recalled the words of a Comanche chief, 66 years before, telling Eli how the land has been always been ripped from one group by another. “Of course, we are not stupid, 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 . . . And now they try to kill us whenever they see us. But the whites do not think this way — they prefer to forget that everything they want already belongs to someone else.”
The frontier code suits Eli. But the despairing Peter, in love with a Mexican woman, can hardly abide the savage theft that has so enriched his family. Conscience did not suit the Texas borderland.
As the novel turns to 2012, Jeanne Anne lies dying, collapsed on the floor in her great ranch house, contemplating how the ruthless sensibilities she inherited from Eli have left her wealthy, successful but estranged from her children, with few emotional connections in the place Texas has become.
Meyer writes with such considerable scope, and so well, about the awful events that allowed the United States to wrest that land from the Mexicans and the Indians. “In the distance I could see the Nueces and the green river flats all around, the sun continuing to rise, catching in the pall of dust, the air around the casa mayor turning a brilliant yellow-orange as if some miracle were about to occur, a descent of angels, or perhaps the opposite, a kind of eruption, the ascent of some ancient fire that would wipe us all from the earth.”
Those beautiful words described the aftermath of a massacre.
Fred Grimm is a Miami Herald columnist.