If someone raped and murdered your sister and mom and killed your brother, would you A) run for your life, B) plot revenge, or C) become the killers' adoptive son?
Eli McCullough chooses C in Philipp Meyer's highly acclaimed, brutal frontier novel, The Son. Meyer's first novel “American Rust,” chronicled the slow death of a small Pennsylvania steel town and the evaporating of hopes of its two protagonists. “The Son,” which seems certain to cement Meyer's reputation, takes on a bigger geography, but decline is still the theme. In the process, he's written a Texas epic that can stand alongside classics by Larry McMurtry and Cormac McCarthy.
Kidnapped after a vicious attack on his family, Eli, or Tiehteti as the Comanche rename him, is the consummate survivor. (The 12-year-old doesn't waste much time grieving – his bookish brother was an embarrassment, and his sister never liked him much.) Looking back at his long life from 1936, the centenarian tells a WPA interviewer about outliving both his biological and adoptive families and the frontier he adored.
“The Son” also follows two of Eli's descendants, Peter, who in 1915 is unable to stop the slaughter of his Mexican neighbors; and Jeanne, who at age 86 is lying on the floor of her home, unable to move and unable to remember how she got there. (Alarmingly, she can smell gas, and there seems to be a haze of smoke filling the room.) In the beginning, readers may resent any switch away from Eli, but Meyer jumps masterfully between eras, able to recreate a Comanche raid with as much detail as a boarding school sleepover, and the attendant perils of both.
When Eli was a child, “the country was rich with life the way it is rotten with people today,” he tells WPA worker recording him on tape.
While he longs for the days when the grass was chest-deep, Eli acknowledges he's done his fair share to exploit the area's natural resources – grabbing all the land he can, by fair means or foul, and first covering it with cattle and then oil rigs, a task his great-granddaughter carries on to advance the family fortunes.
“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,” Eli tells his Peter. “But that is the story of the human race. Soil to sand, fertile to barren, fruit to thorns. It is all we know how to do.”
Eli's adopted father tries to teach him the importance of putting the tribes' lives ahead of his own, but he absorbs another lesson better: the only way to own a hunk of Texas is to take it from someone else. The waves of invasions, of course, had been going on since before his birth, as Toshaway points out. The Comanche had taken the area from the Tonkawa and then the Mexican and American settlers took it from them.
“The whites do not think this way – they prefer to forget that everything they want already belongs to someone else,” Toshaway tells Eli. “They all want to be rich, same as we do, but they do not admit to themselves that you only get rich by taking things from other people. They think that if you do not see the people you are stealing from, or if they do not look like you, it is not really stealing.”
Eli becomes an equal opportunity killer, as first a Comanche warrior, then a Texas ranger.
In 1915, Peter, a far more morally complicated man than his father, grapples with the fallout from that way of thinking, falling into self-loathing and depression. (There is, it should be noted, far more whining in Peter's chapters. He is, however, the McCullough least likely to gut you – either literally or metaphorically.)
Appalled by the treatment of the Garcias, and the casual annexing of their land, Peter can't live with the colonel's justifications anymore.
“That is how the Garcias got the land, by cleaning off the Indians,” Eli tells him. “and that is how we had to get it. And one day that is how someone will get it from us. Which I urge you to remember.”
Jeanne, on the other hand, adores her great-grandfather, the Colonel, and thoroughly absorbs his lessons in a way her cowboy-playing father never did: “The strong took from the weak, only the weak believed otherwise,” she thinks, alone in the family mansion.
She bucks society's expectations to become an oil baron, but it's as lonely an existence as her grandmother, who hoped to turn her into a pearl-wearing debutante, warned.
“Men, with whom she had everything in common, did not want her around. Women, with whom she had nothing in common, smiled too much, laughed too loud, and mostly reminded her of small dogs, their lives lost in interior decorating and other people's outfits. There had never been a place for a person like her.”
While Eli remains the most compelling character in "The Son," Meyer skilfully weaves together all his time-traveling threads, as the events of one era pay bloody dividends in the next.