Thursday, September 5, 2013

Bloody lines of a dynasty

More about us ... Philipp Meyer's <i>The Son</i>.

More about us as species ... Philipp Meyer's The Son.

By Philipp Meyer. Vintage. 576pp. $32.95.

Philipp Meyer's first novel, American Rust, told an engrossing story of modern America's collapse. His follow-up burrows into the making of that nation with a tale that is bolder and bloodier, darker and deeper. And dazzling.

The triumphant result of five years' work, The Son intertwines three stories that trace a Texas dynasty, the McCulloughs.

<i>The Son</i>, by Philipp Meyer.

The Son, by Philipp Meyer.

Their patriarch, Eli McCullough, is stolen by Comanche warriors from a remote homestead at the age of eight in the 1840s, returns to the white world and forges an empire. One of his sons, Peter, reluctantly participates in Eli's extermination of competitors and is scarred by guilt in a chronology that begins around World War I. And Peter's granddaughter, Jeanne, recalls her life as an oil baroness while on the verge of death in 2012.


It's not exactly standard life experience for an author who left school aged 16 and grew up in working-class Baltimore before eventually studying at prestigious Cornell University. So, how did Meyer fill his gaps to craft such a bloodthirsty novel?

In part, with buffalo blood.

As well as consulting an estimated 250 books and immersing himself in too many moments to catalogue, he explained in a US interview that he spent a couple days with a buffalo rancher who supplies organic restaurants. After the rancher shot one of his herd and cut the animal's throat, Meyer borrowed a coffee mug from the rancher's battered truck and drank a cup of the blood.

The initial taste is not metallic - that comes later, he says - but a mixture of salt and musk. The pay-off is 27 words in a 561-page narrative spanning 175 years.

And yet, for all the details that mass and breathe life into this book, it never boasts about the titanium girders of research that support it.

With each thread Meyer takes a different literary approach, and each confers perspective on the others.

Eli's sections, ferocious in their brutality, purport to be a transcript of him recounting his life, giving Meyer scope to enrich the text through a lively oral tradition: ''We launched arrows at panther and elk and bears of every size, dumping our kills in camp for the women to clean, then walking off with our chests out like the men.''

Peter's chapters are extracts of diaries, with all the confessional avenues that opens. ''A few hours later the photographer showed up. The Rangers posed with the bodies of the male Garcias, the faces shot off most of the dead men, a detail that would be lost in the printing.''

And Jeanne's chapters, told in third person limited, let Meyer convey her past as well as her hallucinogenic last minutes. ''You wondered: all the interesting people in heaven, everyone would want to talk to them. It didn't take much thinking to realise that there would have to be a separate heaven for famous people.''

Since American Rust appeared in 2009, critics have smothered Meyer with praise as the next Steinbeck, the next Faulkner, the next Cormac McCarthy, the next pen-wielding messiah, but the polish of the language and the insights into character here are anything but imitative.

Steinbeck told stories of the dispossessed and the disenfranchised. Meyer tells that tale from the perspective of what it is to have and exert power. He also shows that our efforts to demonise ''the other'' are nothing new.

Today's bogeymen in the West are Muslims, but every generation crafts its ideal enemy for selfish goals. In The Son, the Comanches steal from other tribes; the Mexicans steal from the Native Americans; the whites steal from the Mexicans. The only comfort is the knowledge that no dynasty lasts forever.

American Rust told a redemptive story about man's inherent goodness, but whatever faith Meyer possessed has been set aside here.

The Son tells so much about our species that at moments I wondered whether I had paid close enough attention for the past 50-plus years. We rape the land, we rape our neighbours. We murder, we torture, we set fire to whatever offends us.

None of this is to suggest the novel is unrelenting or preachy, or intended for an audience that craves self-satisfied winks. To the contrary, this is drama of the highest and most accessible order.

At times The Son is to literature what Goya is to painting. It shows we have slithered from the primordial waters too lazy to scrub away our instincts, and all we have evolved are fangs.

Perhaps only art is our saving grace, and confessions this beautiful are all we can cite in any appeal for mercy, let alone salvation.

Philipp Meyer speaks at Mosman Library Monday, September 9, 7pm.
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