I’ve said it before that I love Westerns, which is why I grabbed a review copy of The Son by Philipp Meyer of the shelf as soon as I read the description. Meyer, author of American Rust, was named one of The New Yorker’s 20 Under 40, and has received comparisons to Cormac McCarthy, John Steinbeck, and William Faulkner.
In his new novel, he tells the story of an ambitious family of Texas settlers. It begins with thirteen-year-old Eli McCullough, the first male child born in the Republic of Texas, who loses his family and homestead in a brutal Comanche attack. Taken captive, he adapts to the Comanche lifestyle, learning the ways and language, and becomes the adopted son of the chief. However, disease, starvation, and the onslaught of white settlers leave him alone. Unable to fit into white or native culture, he must forge his own path. Intertwined with Eli’s life are the stories of his son Peter and his great-granddaughter J.A., a woman who must succeed in a man’s world during the oil boom years in Texas.
In the beginning, I found Eli’s story to be the strongest, looking forward to returning to it when I hit intervening chapters about the rest of the family. As the novel moved on though, the other story lines gained strength, illustrating the ambition and drive that perpetuates the family as a whole. Their wealth and power bring unhappiness and bitterness for subsequent generations. Whatever Texas once meant to Eli, it’s lost as oil replaces cattle as the center of the economy, finagling, and politicking. Meyer doesn’t spare the reader the harshness of the frontier or of the oil-boom years.
Though this engrossing novel will receive comparisons to Lonesome Dove or Blood Meridian, Meyer’s work can stand on its own two feet, earning the right to stand alongside these American classics.
This is also a way for Occidental to make up for the difficulties of drilling in California, where the company continues to have a substantial presence in a state that makes things tough for the oil industry. For what it’s worth, it’s also a way for the Yates family, which has been in the oil business since the early twentieth century, to cash out and end what the New York Times characterized in 2004 as a dynamic that sounds like something out of “Dallas” at best and the Civil War at worst.