Philipp Meyer’s new novel spanning nearly 200 years of the American West, The Son, opens with the transcription of a 1934 New Deal WPA recording of 100-year-old Eli McCullough’s reminiscences. Eli, also known as the Colonel, discusses his imminent death: in one breath, comparing himself to Alexander the Great and, in the next, dismissing women and marriage. From vests fashioned of scalps, Aztecs as “mincing choirboys,” and vaqueros to Texas rangers, ranchers and oil wells, the Colonel has seen it all and is not shy about sharing his opinions.
Meyer alternates narrators and timeframes by chapter, giving voice to Eli as well as to his son Peter and Peter’s granddaughter, Jeanne. Born in 1834, the same year in which Texas gained its independence from Mexico, Eli’s story is the backbone of the book. As a boy, he witnesses the brutal slaughter of his mother, brother and sister by a band of Comanche who take Eli captive and eventually incorporate him as a member of their tribe. Eli’s later choices reflect his determination to survive despite the torturous customs of his captors. His conduct also mirrors the rapacious actions of a government and its people relentlessly expanding westward into territory already occupied. The Colonel has a contentious relationship with his son Peter, whose chapters play the role of a conscience, ruminating on injustice and cruelty. As the only descendent of the Colonel interested in taking over the family legacies of ranching and oil, great-granddaughter Jeanne reflects on her struggles as a woman managing a vast business in a Texas-style man’s world.
Jeanne muses, “the blood that ran through history would fill every river and ocean…” The Son dispassionately recounts the barbarous atrocities committed by settlers and natives alike. Like the western novels of Larry McMurtry or Cormac McCarthy, Meyer’s writing is notable for its lack of romanticism about its subject. Meyer, who grew up in Baltimore’s Hampden neighborhood, has written a family saga packed with adventure and drama in which the sins of all the fathers have consequences reverberating down through generations.