Look, let me be honest here: Phillipp Meyer's new novel, The Son, makes me green with envy. It's the kind of sprawling multi-generational novel of frontier history I love to read--and would love even more to write, a sprawling epic of American life that some reviewers claim recalls what we used to talk about before post-modernity as "the Great American novel." It links generational sagas in a fashion that suggests that history has undeniable meaning, and it does that job--at least from my point of view--in a way that's faithful to each of the generations he documents. It really is an amazing novel.
Writing historical fiction is difficult, even if someone who's never tried it thinks it might be easy--after all, no one's around to judge whether you've got the sights and sounds of a blacksmith shop right. Blacksmiths are all dead.
No, they're not. Really good readers are fact checkers. Anyone who wants to write historical fiction ought to know, out of the box, that the givens have to be right because novels get cooked and writers lose when they aren't.
I once read a story to a big audience of students, a story that just mentioned a passenger car full of Asian immigrants, circa 1890, on their way to the Pacific Northwest on the Great Northern. Some kid--some student--came to see me the next day. Asian immigrants--the Chinese, for instance, who came to America--didn't come by way of Ellis Island, did they? he asked. That would make no sense.
I had egg on my face. Now a splash of egg is good medicine at times, but that one little mistake had thrown everything I'd written into question, and suggested, irreverently, that my own judgement on other matters may well have been just as specious. If you miss the givens, you'll lose the readers.
What I know about Texas history is what I took home from a tourist visit to the Alamo and what I've read about the Comanches, a southern tribe of Plains Indians who were, most believe, the finest horsemen in the world, but given to a level of blood-letting that made them perhaps the most feared Native Americans on the continent during the 19th century. Oh, yeah, and I know something about the Texas Rangers, who TV taught me were noble heroes, even though history records they were often little more than vigilantes sporting tin badges.
If Meyer's novel is accurate, if the characters from McCullough family who people this impressive sage are representative, then this Calvinist is even more happy that this country's Puritan past is fundamental to its history, because if the stories that run through this novel comprise a kind of overview of Texas character, then, quite frankly, I better understand someone like Ted Cruz.
Meyer's Texans are simply the latest land-grabbers in what seems an eternal go-round. History, Meyer suggests, is an endless series of infernal repetitions that reflect only our unbridled passion to please ourselves in ways none of us can be. If this incredible novel is meant in any way to define what Texas is, then I'm quite happy with once-a-year visits because The Son is as flush with cash as it is empty of happiness. Meyer's novel traces the manifold glories of unfettered liberty, a dog-eat-dog world where pleasures are scant and joy almost non-existent, despite huge bankrolls, maybe because of them.
I envy Meyer's ability to spin a yarn, to embellish with detail that's extraordinarily good, to get the givens right, or so it seems to me. But I couldn't write a novel like The Son because this Calvinist, this whole-hearted believer in original sin, knows good people, and basically there are none here. Their Texas is flush with brooding rich people, men and women who don't have a clue how to be happy, even though they've got money to be just about anything.
But Meyer has an agenda. For some reason, he creates dialogue that feels shockingly anachronistic, laced as it is with our generation's favorite obscenities. His characters--white and Native--cuss just like our own most obscene infidels. USA Today called the novel, "bold, ambitious, and brutal," and it is, emphasis on brutal. It's a masterful novel that ought to make Texans wonder about their own bold pretensions, a land where, historically, the only justice is power. No wonder they hate government.
And all of that makes The Son a moral tale, strangely enough, for what is offers is yet another take on "the wages of sin is death." The McCulloughs--the multi-generational family at the heart of things--are as rich as sin. Starting in the mid-19th century with incredible tragedy, they grew necessarily fierce and made a fortune on real estate, then cattle, then oil. But they're a sad and miserable lot, in part because the stories most central to their history are cold-blooded, mass murder.
What defines Texas, Meyer suggests, is its worship of unfettered liberty, justice be hanged. But make no mistake--it's a history with promise because in Texas there's gold in them thar' hills and on them thar' plains, always gold and gold and more gold.
But not happiness.
Phillipp Meyer's The Son is a grand saga, a masterpiece of historical fiction, and it is everything awed reviewers claim it is, an American epic.
It's also depressingly sad.