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Philipp Meyer's 'The Son' looks at passing of generations on Texas ranch

| Saturday, July 13, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

“Being a writer and a Texan,” Larry McMurtry wrote in the late 1960s, “is an amusing fate.” What he was addressing was the shift, in the years after World War II, “from the land to the cities” and what he saw as “the dying of ... the rural, pastoral way of life.”

Such issues arise throughout Philipp Meyer's second novel, “The Son,” a family saga spanning generations that, in its own way, encapsulates the history of the state itself. Beginning with “(t)he Declaration of Independence that bore the Republic of Texas out of Mexican tyranny,” the book stretches to the present, tracing fault lines and conflicts that never fully get resolved.

Meyer, whose first novel, “American Rust,” won a 2009 Los Angeles Times Book Prize, makes this clear from the opening chapter, which comes framed as a WPA recording made by Col. Eli McCullough, 100 years old in 1936 and looking back. Here, we see the scope of the novel as both personal and epic — a drama in which a single lifetime can encompass a swath of history, in which the individual and the social subtly merge.

The Colonel is only one protagonist; his narrative, which takes place largely between 1850 and 1880, is intertwined with that of his son Peter and his great-granddaughter Jeanne Anne. As a child, Jeanne Anne was the Colonel's favorite, and in their bond, we watch time compress until it is almost nonexistent, a metaphor for how fast everything changes, not just the family but also an entire way of life.

“A man, a life,” Jeanne Anne reflects, “ ... it was barely worth mentioning. The Visigoths had destroyed the Romans, and themselves been destroyed by the Muslims. Who were destroyed by the Spanish and Portuguese. You did not need Hitler to see that it was not a pleasant story. And yet here she was breathing, having these thoughts. The blood that ran through history would fill every river and ocean, but despite all the butchery, here you were.”

Butchery, as it turns out, is central to the story of the McCulloughs, starting with the Colonel, kidnapped at 13 by Comanche raiders who killed his family. His three years as an adopted member of the tribe harden him, teach him to see the world more elementally.

“Of course we are not stupid,” his mentor Toshaway explains, “the land did not always belong to the Comanche, many years ago it was Tonkawa land, but we liked it, so we killed the Tonkawa and took it from them. ... But the whites do not think this way.” What he's saying is that there is always a price for one's actions, a lesson that resonates throughout the book.

The sections narrated by Peter revolve around the killing of a Mexican family in 1915 by Anglo settlers, a massacre that afflicts the McCulloughs like a curse. At the center of both stories, as well as Jeanne Anne's contemporary account, is the land and their attachment to it — or more accurately, what it makes them do. From plain to ranch to oil and mineral exploration, the family spread, encompassing a quarter of a million acres, takes on a personality of its own.

Again, this recalls McMurtry, although Meyer has something a little different in mind, which is not to mourn, or even necessarily to record, the passing of one set of myths into another, so much as to illustrate how, even as their relationship to it develops, the McCulloughs remain defined by their geography.

In part, perhaps, this is because Meyer is not a native Texan, although he does live in Austin part time. But even more, it has to do with his intention to portray the McCulloughs as representative of a culture in which the land is something to possess and something that can never be possessed. Peter tells us, “We are getting everything cross-fenced, and as Pinkard said, this place is beginning to run like a well-oiled machine. But when does the soul go out of it? That is what no one seems to know.”

That's a potent construct for a novel, although like the McCulloughs, it can't help but suffer from the Colonel's dominating personality. By this, I don't mean that his story is stultifying — just the opposite — only that, in its shadow, his descendants' tamer conflicts cannot measure up.

Jeanne Anne's concerns over the future of the family (which has gone from resolute to dissolute in five generations) may be legitimate, but they hardly generate the excitement, the sheer joy of storytelling, that marks her great-grandfather's memories of the tribe. And Peter, ineffectual, prone to tepid anger, never provokes us into caring about his life.

To be fair, that's part of the point here, that the bloodlines always grow diluted, that the frontier yields to something more contained. “I remember him saying that we lived on the Frontier,” Jeanne Anne's brother Jonas says of their father, “... I told him the frontier had closed before he was even born, and then he would lecture me about the tradition we were carrying on. I would tell him that there was no tradition, there could be no tradition for a thing that had lasted only twenty years.”

And yet, as “The Son” progresses, we find ourselves drawn most powerfully to that frontier, despite (or because of) the fact that it no longer exists. This, too, is what McMurtry was addressing, the lure of those old stories, and its emergence here suggests how difficult it is to write one's way out of such a legacy, even, or especially, within the boundaries of a more settled life.

David L. Ulin is a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times.

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