In "The Son," Philipp Meyer's sprawling multigenerational saga about a powerful Texas family, the author harvests the state's sad, passionate, often violent history, from its origins as an embattled republic to its present-day condition as an arid landscape sucked dry, literally, by a century of environmentally disastrous cattle ranching and irrigation-based agriculture. Along the way, Meyer — author of the critically acclaimed "American Rust" (2009) — tells the stories of the state's white settlers and their near-constant clashes with Native Americans and Mexicans, including now almost forgotten massacres of Mexican-Americans by Texas Rangers and others along the border in the early 20th century.
This piece first ran in Printers Row Journal, delivered to Printers Row members with the Sunday Chicago Tribune and by digital edition via email. Click here to learn about joining Printers Row.
"The Son" begins with the kidnapping of the first male child born in the Republic of Texas, Eli McCullough, by a Comanche tribe that kills his mother and sister and raises him as its own. Later, Eli becomes the patriarch of a Texas oil and ranching dynasty. His son, Peter, is caught up in the so-called Bandit Wars along the border. Finally, Eli's great-granddaughter, Jeannie, struggles to bring the family enterprise into the modern era. Meyer boomerangs back and forth among these three perspectives and various time frames, delivering a panoramic spectacle of life in Texas that combines the epic sweep of Larry McMurtry's "Lonesome Dove" with the modernist tone of Cormac McCarthy's Border trilogy.
Printers Row Journal recently caught up with Meyer, 39, who divides his time between New York City and Austin, Texas. Here's an edited transcript of our chat.
Q: You're originally from Maryland, so I'm guessing the origins of "The Son" date from when you got your master's of fine arts at the University of Texas at Austin, yes?
A: Yes. I didn't know much about Texas when I moved there for graduate school. In my first or second semester, I took a class in life and literature of the Southwest, and that's where I first heard about these events along the border in 1915-1918, what Anglos called the Bandit Wars. It involved a series of attacks on ranches and infrastructure that were basically minor.
The result of those attacks was a long series of massacres of Mexican-Americans, or tejanos, all along the Texas border from Brownsville up to West Texas. It was a major part of Texas history ... and I'd never heard of it. And that was the seed of the first part of the book, when I realized there was going to be a book about Texas, in 2007-08.
Q: You must have had to reckon early on with how your book was going to respond, or not, to the literature of Texas and the West, including novels and movies such as "The Searchers," which is an obvious reference point for your book. I assume you knew "The Searchers," in which John Wayne spends years looking for a girl captured by Comanche Indians, long before you went to Texas.
A: Actually, I didn't — which is strange, because I like Westerns. I'm a Clint Eastwood guy, a John Wayne guy. "The Searchers" was something I learned about from Jonathan Lethem, who'd written an essay about it, and I didn't see it until after I'd started writing the book.
Of course Cormac McCarthy is an all-time favorite writer of mine. I kind of realized I had to stop reading his work while I was writing the book, in part because his voice is so distinct, and I was aware of the potential that this book was going to be a reflection of a reflection of a reflection. So I stopped reading Western fiction, except for some Larry McMurtry books that I had to catch up on.
So in terms of the tradition, what I actually tried to do was not think about it. If you're always thinking about someone else's work, about the tradition you're working in, how can you possibly make anything good? Mostly what I did was start researching Texas history. I read 350 books about what life was like in those days. Essentially I wanted this to be a modernist take on the American creation myth. I didn't want the characters to be mythological figures, the way they're presented to us as kids in movies and in some books.
Q: We all have notions about Texas, both in its early history and in the present, all of which you span in the book. I guess you had to decide whether you were going to support or dispute those notions.
A: Well, the more I researched it, the more I realized how little I understood about the state. And I saw more about why the mythology about Texas exists — the frontier ethos, the fierce sense of independence and so forth. My basic fear was that I'd get things wrong. And as I learned more about the state, I would be consciously addressing the myth — such as the John Wayne myth of brave Anglos who moved into uncharted and unsettled wilderness and tamed it. I realized that this was quite silly. There was no wilderness. The continent was occupied by the time the whites got here, and taken by them, largely, by force or coercion, and sometimes bought.
The other myth I had, dating to having attended a liberal college, was the counter-myth that Native Americans as a whole were morally and philosophically superior to the Europeans. And the more I learned, the more I realized that that was also false. When you start to look at Native American history, you realize that, very far from being a peaceful, morally superior people, Native Americans were not that different from Europeans. The Apache came in and by the 1650s had subjugated most of the other tribes in Texas, and wiped many of them out. About a hundred years later, the Comanche came in and wiped out the Apache, or drove them down into old Mexico or Arizona. Then, less than 100 years later, the Mexicans offered all this land in Texas to Americans, because they needed people to hold the territory against the Comanche.
Q: Then there's the profound effect that agriculture and ranching — in particular the introduction of cattle — had on the Texas landscape.
A: Absolutely. Texas was mostly short-grass and tall-grass prairie when modern Europeans arrived here. It really was a land of milk and honey. But when they brought all these cattle onto these relatively small bits of land, and the cattle were allowed to graze freely, they essentially destroyed the prairie. Brush quickly takes over, and you have a radical transformation of the landscape.
You also have large-scale irrigation going on everywhere in Texas, and in some areas that's dropped the water table 500 to 1,000 feet. All over the Panhandle now, irrigation of cornfields has been going on for decades, and the water table is just getting lower and lower. The dryness and brushiness associated with Texas now is not what people were seeing here even 100 years ago.
Q: Maybe the biggest theme in the book is the effect of violence on the culture of Texas — the violence associated with the birth of the Republic of Texas, and the battles against the Mexicans and the Indians, and so on. Fighting is the essential condition, really.
A: There's a part of it that's unique to Texas and the Southern borderlands. In Texas you have the longest open frontier of any state. It was heavily settled, by the standards of the time, by whites during the same time there was a substantial Native American presence of the warrior culture. There was a 40-year war there that we don't really talk about as a war, but it was. And when it was founded, it was pretty unclear, at first, whether Texas was going to remain independent, or become a state, or go back to Mexico. So there was a constant state of warfare between Native Americans and the white settlers, and also between the Anglo settlers and the Mexican settlers to the south.
Of course, all of America was defined by fighting in this way. The war between white Europeans and Native Americans began as soon as the whites set foot on the continent, and didn't end until the last of the Lakota, or Sioux, entered reservations in the mid-1880s. Of course that's not what we're taught in school; we're taught that the big wars, the wars that mattered to America, were the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Civil War and so on. But the war without which we simply could not exist as a nation, and so was much more important than all of those, was the war to rid the continent of the folks who lived here before we landed. In Texas, which had open conflict on several fronts as recently as 130 years ago, that ethos is just fresher.
Q: Your task in the novel, I imagine, was to convey all this through your characters, to let them breathe and become real in a way that transcends your themes and talking points, so to speak.
A: Absolutely. Eli, who's of course the most charismatic, crowd-pleasing character, was actually the last one to go into the book. The first couple of years of writing, I had these characters who were saying what I thought about the settling of the West, waxing philosophical and so on. It was a trap I fell into almost completely. But I realized that I actually hate books like this. I hate books in which the author talks through his characters. And that's when I realized that the Eli character had to exist; I had to show, through him, the way people really were back then, rather than have the author talk about it. And I spent the last three years sort of writing myself out of the book, making sure that I was showing the story through the characters, rather than speaking it.
Q: Eli has the interesting perspective of someone who is white but was raised by the Comanche tribe that kidnapped him, which gives him the unique ability to see both sides from the inside out.
A: Captivity among Native American tribes was actually extremely common along the frontier for its entire history, about 300 years. We think of it as really exotic now, but it happened all the time.
Q: Going back to "The Searchers," Ethan's intention, when he finds little Debbie, is to kill her, because she's been spoiled by the Comanche, turned into something alien and foul. Maybe it would have been different for a boy like Eli; with a girl captive, you had the whole sexual aspect of things.
A: That's true. Accounts by female captives in the mid-19th century tend to be, "Yes, all the other female captives were abused" — in other words raped — "but I was somehow spared." Boys who came back generally would have had a much easier time than women because they weren't seen as damaged in that way.
Q: The massacre of Mexican-Americans along the border by the Rangers is maybe the least-known part of the history in the book.
A: Yes, there's relatively little data, very few books, about that period, partly because the history books are generally written by Anglos. But the mistreatment of Mexican-Americans, of tejanos, is definitely shocking, similar in its way to the treatment of African-Americans during Jim Crow. It's part of our history, but we don't talk about it much. Certainly Anglos in South Texas don't like to talk about it. In my book, you see why.
By Philipp Meyer, Ecco, 592 pages, $27.99