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Sons, Guns And The Sins Of The Father In Meyer's Texas Epic

"Texas yesterday is unbelievable, but no more incredible than Texas today," wrote Edna Ferber, author of the iconic Lone Star State novel Giant. She continues, in what's as good a description of America's 28th state as you're likely to encounter, "Today's Texas is exhilarating, exasperating, violent, charming, horrible, delightful, alive." A huge contradiction of a place, Texas is as friendly as it can be frightening, with a history as vast and as variegated as the United States itself.

The sheer size of Texas and the complexity of its past can be intimidating, even for natives (including this reviewer), and it might seem impossible for any author, no matter how talented, to distill its unique history into a novel. Several American writers have come very close: Besides Ferber and Lonesome Dove author Larry McMurtry, there's Cormac McCarthy (Blood Meridian, All the Pretty Horses) and Americo Paredes, whose George Washington Gomez is one of the state's great underrated novels.

And now there's another book to add to that list. Philipp Meyer's The Son isn't just one of the most exciting Texas novels in years, it's one of the most solid, unsparing pieces of American historical fiction to come out this century. Meyer, who grew up in New York and Baltimore, has managed to craft a brilliant chronicle of Texas from 1849 to the present day. And like his first novel, the widely acclaimed American Rust, it's stunning, raw and epic.

The Son covers six generations of the McCullough family, starting with Eli, a boy who's kidnapped by the Comanches after they brutally murder his family. Like many Comanche captives, Eli becomes a full member of the tribe, learning their ways and growing attached to his adoptive family. When they fall victim to disease and bands of angry white settlers, Eli is forced to find his own way. He starts his own family and finds work as a Texas Ranger and a Confederate soldier before becoming a cattle rancher with a huge spread and a cutthroat reputation.

Philipp Meyer's first novel was <em>American Rust. </em>In 2010, he was included on <em>The New Yorker</em>'s "20 Under 40" list.
/ Courtesy of Philipp Meyer
Courtesy of Philipp Meyer
Philipp Meyer's first novel was American Rust. In 2010, he was included on The New Yorker's "20 Under 40" list.

Meyer cuts back and forth between Eli's story and the stories of two of his descendants, Peter and Jeanne Anne. Peter is Eli's son. He inherits the ranch but is haunted by depression and self-loathing after an incident in which his family and neighbors, over Peter's weak objections, massacre the original Mexican settlers of the area. The attack essentially destroys Peter psychologically, and his family comes to blame him for the failure of their cattle business.

Peter's granddaughter (and Eli's great-granddaughter), Jeanne Anne, is a tough-minded oil baron who fights desperately to keep her business and her own family together. Jeanne Anne tells her story through a confused haze; she's elderly, alone, trapped inside a burning house, reflecting on a lifetime of being underestimated and hated by her male colleagues and rivals: "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."

The novel's structure — with chapters switching back and forth from the mid-1800s to the early 1900s and the 20th century — is unusual, but it's never confusing or jarring. And while a few of the plots take a while to develop, they come together in surprising and rewarding ways by the book's end.

Both the structure and the sprawling subject material of The Son make it a hard project for any writer to pull off, especially one as young as Meyer. But despite a few slow passages toward the beginning, he succeeds brilliantly, thanks in no small part to his self-assured, incandescent prose. When a horrified Peter McCullough witnesses the ruthless murder of his Mexican neighbors, barricaded in their "main house" (casa mayor), he explains his shock with stark — and, against all odds, beautiful — words:

Peter's descendants, of course, have to live in the aftermath of that eruption and of similar events that shaped, and often threatened to kill, the very soul of Texas. The Son is a novel of redemption, and Meyer knows that redemption is never a sure thing — that it's as rare, in fact, as a snowstorm in San Antonio. "The land was hard on its sons, harder yet on the sons of other lands," Jeanne Anne reflects, thinking of her own dead family members and of those who died at their hands. Nothing about Texas is small, and nothing about Texas is easy. But with his latest novel, Meyer has crafted an epic that finds something like grace in violence and hardship, and he does it with skill and compassion. Like the Lone Star State itself, The Son is vast, brave and, finally, unstoppable.

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Michael Schaub is a writer, book critic and regular contributor to NPR Books. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Portland Mercury and The Austin Chronicle, among other publications. He lives in Austin, Texas.