Colonel Eli McCullough, formerly known as Tiehteti, is a living legend. The first male child born in the Republic of Texas, wrested from Mexico in 1836, Eli has miraculously reached the age of 100. Captured by Comanche Indians in boyhood, he mastered their survival skills, and was well on the way to becoming the most respected member of the tribe when smallpox struck. The all-powerful Comanches — ‘the earth had seen nothing like them since the Mongols’ — had no defence against this invisible enemy. But Eli/Tiehteti, immunised in infancy, survived.
Eli rampages through the next few decades, including a spell as state ranger when he is obliged to hunt down what remains of the people to whom he once belonged. He makes a fortune out of cattle and, later, oil, builds a big white house and fills it with European art and thankless descendants. This huge, ambitious novel opens with Eli contemplating the wrecked territory he knew in the days when ‘the trees had never heard an axe’; ‘the country was rich with life the way it is rotten with people today’. But Eli is as guilty as anyone of that great despoiling.
In a sense, Eli is America. His personal history, of merciless but clear-eyed courage degenerating into brutal empire-building, is Philipp Meyer’s way of rewriting the story of America’s unstoppable rise. Meyer is unflinching in his debunking of the myth of the glorious past, though at times I wish he’d flinched a little more. When it comes to nose-slitting, disembowelling, brains spooned out, and the like, I find that less is more.
Eli’s life among the Comanches is fascinating; by far the best part of the book. The detail has been ‘meticulously researched’, as is the modern way, but for the most part Meyer manages to breathe life into his descriptions of buffalo hunts, tribal feasts and sexual initiation rites. He doesn’t attempt to make the dialogue sound authentic; it’s disconcerting to hear a bunch of braves talking as if they were in a frathouse comedy (‘You are a serious asshole’, ‘what a fat fuck’, etc) but that way Meyer doesn’t run the risk of trying and failing to translate the untranslatable.
If only Meyer had left Eli’s story to stand alone. Unfortunately it is spliced with other narratives. Eli’s son Peter is a decent man, a sensitive liberal left traumatised when his father organises a revenge massacre of their Mexican neighbours. Peter is colourless and inert, and his share of the story causes the novel to sag. Peter’s grand-daughter, Jeanne, is the third voice. She is Eli’s natural heir, a woman of steel who takes over the oil business in the teeth of stereotypical male opposition. Death and disaster befall Jeanne’s nearest and dearest with bewildering frequency, making the misfortunes of the Kennedy clan seem like something out of Watch with Mother. The only episode that catches fire is, unexpectedly, Jeanne’s agonising spell in a genteel East Coast academy for young ladies. Meyer handles the small-scale snobberies and cruelties with a deft touch that makes one feel he has an altogether different kind of novel in him.
There is one other narrator; the suggestively named Ulises, a Mexican itinerant who has McCullough blood in him and some papers to prove it, leaving one with the sinking feeling that there might be a sequel on the way. For all its scope and drama and high intentions, The Son is too often a tedious read, struggling under the weight of repetition and sententiousness. Eli, in an act of personal revenge, presides over the annihilation of the Lipans, a tribe who had ‘lived in the country 500 years’. In the dead chief’s shield, ‘stuffed between the layers, was Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire’. If Meyer wasn’t so relentless about hammering his message home, The Son would have a better chance of being the kind of novel he wants it to be.