When last I wrote, I lamented the difficulties I have finding books I really like. I struggled through sci-fi, winners of glittering international awards, Jewish historical fiction, Latin American books. The list of grim hikes through trails of directionless prose discouraged me.
But, with hope springing eternal, I rolled the reading dice on “The Son,” by Phillip Meyer, published last year and weighing in at 561 pages. The book gripped me from the beginning, as it rolled across 170 years of Texas history, seen through the eyes of members of the McCullough family, with tortured and violent interactions with their neighbors, the ancient Garcia family, on ranches in South Texas.
How firmly did the book hold my attention? I stayed up, fully awake, until 2:30 a.m. one night last week to finish it, and I wasn’t just skimming the pages either, as I have with other massive recent tomes. No, Meyer’s clear style , sure sense of landscape and unblinking view of his subject material took me on the reading ride I crave and so rarely encounter.
The book follows three main characters from the McCullough, starting with patriarch Eli, born in the day the Republic of Texas was proclaimed on March 2, 1836, and kidnapped by Comanches in 1849. He becomes a member of the tribe, its leader, as warfare and disease shrink it down to nothing. He goes back, reluctantly, to white society, where he doesn’t fit in. But as a Texas Ranger and Confederate he makes his way in life and finally a fortune in land and oil. The family seems cursed, and that’s told through the stories of his son Peter and great-granddaughter Jeannie.
Wending through the narrative, especially of Peter and Jeannie, is the specter of the Garcias—I’ll leave that angle to your own reading. The prose is biting in the way it captures the attitudes of the power elite. Here are Jeannie’s childhood musings on her neighbors’ ancient destroyed home:
Only the children had interest in the casa mayor. The Mexican hands, if forced to fetch cattle from the pastures nearby, always crossed themselves. They could not help being ignorant Catholics. And the Garcias had not been able to help being lazy, cattle-stealing greasers and she felt sorry for them, even if they had shot her uncle Glenn.
The book could have used a genealogy table to keep the characters straight. Other than Eli, the main characters spend most of their time moaning about fate and their lot in life (fabulous riches be damned, they want to suffer), and minor characters keep getting shoved on-stage even to the end. I could see another, more compelling book carved from the material, more on the Garcias, less on the McCulloughs. The issues become a little too trendy in the last years covered. Quick appearances by Lyndon Johnson and an unnamed woman writer (obviously Edna Ferber, when she was researching her Texas epic, Giant) suggest another plot direction that never develops.
Still, the book did a great job of communicating a sense of place. Having grown up in South Texas, I know that territory on an instinctual level, even if I haven’t lived there in almost 40 years. References to Brownsville and Hidalgo County jumped out at me, as did the bloody guerilla warfare along the border during the Mexican Revolution. The Texas Rangers, so revered in Anglo society, look very different through the eyes of the Hispanic families that had lived in the region for centuries. They were the Rangers for one population, and the dreaded “Los Rinches” for another.
Peter kept a diary of his life on the Rio Grande, with this September 17, 1915 entry:
Trying to console myself that we aren’t alone in our suffering. Two weeks ago the railroad bridges to Brownsville were burned (again), the telegraph lines cut, two white men singled out from a crowd of laborers and shot in the middle of the morning. About twenty Tejanos killed in reprisals—twenty that anyone heard about. The Third Cavalry has been in regular fights with the Mexican army all along the border, shooting across the river. Three cavalrymen killed by insurgents near Los Indios and, across from Progress, on the Mexican side, the head of a missing U.S. private was displayed on a on a pole.
June 19, 1917: [After Hispanics move north to Michigan to work in car factories, and a local Anglo finds this amusing] Considered mentioning that several of the “greasers” (Vargas and Rivera, at least) had gone to college in Mexico City while Gilbert and his cross-eyed brothers were diddling heifers in Eagle Pass.
Meyer captured the attitudes of both viciousness and generosity that I heard growing up. After Jeannie’s husband Hank dies, she finds this type of response from her business circle:
The Texans had been relentless; they might hate the blacks and Mexicans, they might hate the president enough to kill him, but they had not let her alone, they had cared for her like a mother or daughter, men she barely knew, men whose absence from their offices cost thousands of dollars an hour, and yet she would come downstairs and find them asleep on her couch, and call their drivers to pick them up.
This is Meyer’s second book, very good but not quite great, and I predict he has other major works ahead of him, on topics I cannot even imagine. I’ll be waiting for them.