True West: Philipp Meyer’s ‘The Son’

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Philipp Meyer’s debut novel, ‘American Rust,’ explored the American dream in the contaminated idyll of a former steel town. With ‘The Son,’ his much-anticipated follow-up, Meyer goes deeper, tracing the roots of that dream to its source. ‘The Son’ tells the story of the South Texas frontier through three generations of the McCullough family. There’s Eli, the first Anglo son of the Republic of Texas, born in 1836, who recounts his life as a hostage and then warrior, among the Comanche, along with his subsequent turns as a Texas Ranger, rancher, and oilman; he’s an outsize, heroic figure, morally suspect but irresistible. His son Peter, afflicted by a sense of justice that marks him as the clan’s weakling, struggles with his family’s role in the massacre of their Mexican neighbors. And tethering the book to the present, is Eli’s great-granddaughter, Jeanne Anne, who holds lonely dominion over the family’s crumbling international oil empire.

To write ‘The Son,’ Meyer, 39, immersed himself in their world: drinking buffalo blood straight from the vein, as the Comanche did, training with Blackwater mercenaries to better understand warfare, sleeping for weeks under the stars, wherever the story took him.

Relics of that research fill Meyer’s New York apartment – hundreds of books and a few weapons, including the bois d’arc bow and dogwood arrows handmade for him by a Comanche friend. “It takes incredible skill,” says Meyer, a lifelong hunter, demonstrating the flick of the wrist that gives the arrow killing speed. “I could never quite master it.” Sun-bleached bones and antlers rest on tables; the head of a sizeable boar “shot in Texas,” where Meyer lives part-time, dominates the kitchen. “I didn’t necessarily start out to write about an American mythology,” he says, “but the story kept getting bigger.”

In ‘The Son,’ Meyer has the omnivorous eye of someone living off the land, devouring the possibilities of the West, that once-open country. This is an endlessly absorbing book, a page-turner with serious moral scope, both full of feeling and ruthlessly engineered, as great books are, to get us closer to the truth about ourselves.

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