Hat and Cattle: Philipp Meyer’s The Son
For all its shit-kicking egalitarianism and snorting at Yankee snobs, there is something about Texas that induces reverence for royalty. The state’s most famous patch of private real estate is called the King Ranch, and George Parr, the mid-century political boss of a South Texas county, was known as the Duke of Duval. The official state insect is the monarch butterfly. As crucial as gerrymandered districts in shaping Texas’ destiny have been the fiefdoms of its cattle and oil barons. And, like European royalty, Texas kingpins aspire to dynastic rule. Though the Hunts, Murchisons and Bushes lack the longevity—and majesty—of the Bourbons, Hapsburgs and Romanovs, they, too, have sought legitimacy in lineage.
Colonel Eli McCullough is the patriarch of Philipp Meyer’s fictional House of McCullough in Meyer’s new novel, The Son. Like Saleem Sinai, narrator of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, McCullough is a synecdoche for the territory whose history his life has spanned. Saleem was born the moment India gained independence; Eli entered the world on March 2, 1836, the day Texas became a republic. He leaves it 100 years later, after recounting his experiences—as Comanche captive, Texas Ranger, Confederate colonel, cattle rancher, and oil tycoon—for a Depression-era oral history project. His son Peter, who regards the coarse old Colonel as “some fossil come out of a stream bank or a trench in the ocean, from a time in history when you took what you wanted and did not see any reason to justify,” despises his clan’s legacy of violence, greed and bigotry. “This family must not be allowed to continue,” Peter writes in a diary that his son Charles later attempts to burn. The family continues nevertheless with Charles’ daughter Jeannie, who inherits the McCullough fortune, pugnacity and melancholy. Each generation is haunted by the fragility and transience of its accomplishments. For all his frenetic activity and the power and riches he manages to amass, Eli McCullough reduces mortal strivings to this formula: “Soil to sand, fertile to barren, fruit to thorns.” As epigraph to The Son, Meyer inserts a reminder of the vanity of human wishes: Edward Gibbon’s observation that even the mighty Roman Empire could not withstand “the vicissitudes of fortune, which spares neither man nor the proudest of his works.”
Cutting back and forth among the dramatic lives of Eli, Peter, and Jeannie, Meyer constructs a novel that aspires to tell the story of Texas, which is, in outsized miniature, the story of the United States, from frontier skirmishes to corporate hegemony. Walt Whitman, who believed that the American story is the human story, insisted that “The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem.” Meyer, who is still young enough to fit the honorific “20 under 40” category into which The New Yorker placed him in 2010, seems intent on writing that poem afresh.
His widely acclaimed first book, 2009’s American Rust, explores wasted lives in a dying steel town in the Monongahela Valley. Meyer, who grew up in working-class Baltimore, has said he intends American Rust, his blue-collar Pennsylvania book, and The Son, his Texas book, to be the first two installments of an “American trilogy.” What setting would be appropriate to fulfill his grand plan of capturing American experience within a mere three volumes? California? New York? Alaska? North Dakota? It took John Updike four novels—Rabbit, Run (1960), Rabbit Redux (1971), Rabbit Is Rich (1981), and Rabbit at Rest (1990)—to conduct his diachronic study of American culture as refracted through Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom during the last half of the 20th century. What Philip Roth calls his own American trilogy—American Pastoral (1997), I Married a Communist (1998), and The Human Stain (2000)—diagnoses what recurring narrator Nathan Zuckerman terms “the indigenous American berserk” from McCarthyism to Vietnam to Watergate to the Clinton impeachment. John Dos Passos anticipated both Updike and Roth with The 42nd Parallel (1930), 1919 (1932) and The Big Money (1936)—a sequence published under the grandiose title U.S.A. Behind all these efforts is the perennial attempt to create what J.W. DeForest, writing in The Nation in 1868, termed “The Great American Novel.” Seeking an affirmation of national unity shattered by the Civil War, DeForest called for “a single tale which paints American life so broadly, truly, and sympathetically that every American of feeling and culture is forced to acknowledge the picture as a likeness of something which he knows.”
James Michener made a career of writing baggy books that cram megabytes of Americana, state by state, into fictional plots. Proceeds from his bestsellers helped found UT-Austin’s Michener Center for Writers, from which Meyer received an M.F.A. Michener’s novels include Hawaii (1959), Centennial (1974), Chesapeake (1978), and Alaska (1988), but at some point anyone who aspires to be a great American novelist, if not write the Great American Novel, has to take on the Lone Star State, and Michener did, in a novel quaintly titled Texas (1985).
However, it is not Michener but rather another popular mid-century author who makes a cameo appearance in The Son. A few years after World War II, Jeannie McCullough receives an inquisitive visitor, referred to only as “that awful writer from New York.” Though wary of the Pulitzer Prize-winning outsider and irritated by her interrogation (“she was obsessed with how much money and land all the families had, with whatever dirt might be scraped up on them”), Jeannie feigns civility. The visitor eventually produces a book about Texas that is made into a movie starring James Dean. “It was one long exaggeration,” Jeannie complains. “It made everyone look like clowns, as if they had stumbled into wealth, as if the state was nothing but backwoods tycoons without two brain cells to rub together.” The visitor is Edna Ferber, and her big Texas potboiler appeared in 1952 as Giant.
Meyer’s own fiction is more ambitious than Ferber’s, his prose more supple. He is as savvy about native flora and fauna as about the nuances of the IRS oil depletion allowance. He knows how to hunt and slaughter a bison, using every portion for food, clothing, tool, or ornament, and he knows his way around a “honey hunt,” in which aging tycoons stock the woods with hired women to stalk. He has absorbed enough captivity narratives to convincingly render daily life among the Comanche band that kidnaps Eli and turns him into a scalping marauder. Like Ferber, Meyer portrays Texas history as a family matter. And as with Ferber’s Benedicts, oil supplants cattle—the latter eventually useful only for tax breaks—as the basis of McCullough family wealth.
Meyer’s moguls, again like Ferber’s, are downright hostile toward the Tejanos they displace. On the pretext of avenging a cattle theft, Eli foments a pogrom against anyone in South Texas with a Mexican background. After all his Garcia neighbors but one are murdered, he adds their acreage to his own. When his son falls in love with the surviving Garcia, María, Peter is banished from the family. The land the McCulloughs grab from the Garcias had been snatched from the Apaches, who were not its original occupants either. The Son provides ample support for the colonel’s observation that “. . . no land was ever acquired honestly in the history of the earth.” And even more for María’s remark that “The land makes people crazy.”
No matter how ambitious, any book must leave a great deal out. But to aspire to capture the essence of America in a Texas dynasty, a writer needs grand material and the ability to paint it as broadly, truly, and sympathetically as DeForest demanded. Meyer has both. The Son shines with more than a century of dishonest, crazy, and fascinating Texans. Yet Jonas McCullough, a grandson of Eli, is not impressed. Educated at Princeton, he abandons his family and his native state, complaining that Texas is “not settled enough to have any culture, but it’s not wild enough to be interesting. It’s just a province.”
Perhaps it takes an outsider—a writer as ambitious as Ferber, Michener, Cormac McCarthy, and Philipp Meyer—to appreciate how wild and interesting Texas remains, even with the Comanche gone.
Contributing writer Steven G. Kellman teaches at the University of Texas at San Antonio.