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Originally published Friday, June 7, 2013 at 5:00 AM

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‘The Son’: the brutal march of time on the plains of Texas

Philipp Meyer’s “The Son” sweeps through centuries of Texas history, from the brutal battles between Comanches and settlers, to the energy wars of the 21st century. Meyer reads Monday, June 10, at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co.

The Washington Post

Author appearance

Philipp Meyer

The author of “The Son” will appear at 7 p.m. Monday at the Elliott Bay Book Co., 1521 10th Ave., Seattle; free (206-624-6600 or elliottbaybook.com).

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In 2009, as the Great Recession was still dragging on, a young man from Baltimore published his first novel, a devastating story about the human costs of industrial ruin. The Washington Post named Philipp Meyer’s “American Rust” one of the top five novels of the year. The New Yorker included Meyer on its list of the 20 best writers under 40.

What a pleasure it is now to see Meyer confirm all that initial enthusiasm with a second book that’s even more ambitious, even more deeply rooted in our troublesome economic and cultural history. With its vast scope — stretching from pre-Civil War cowboys to post-9/11 immigrants — “The Son” (Ecco, 561 pp., $27.99) makes a viable claim to be a Great American Novel of the sort John Dos Passos and Frank Norris once produced. Here is the tale of the United States written in blood across the Texas plains, a 200-year cycle of theft and murder that shreds any golden myths of civilized development.

At 561 pages, “The Son” is a long novel that bears its weight with athletic confidence. The story rotates chapter by chapter through three distinct voices, members of the McCullough family born about 50 years apart.

The first voice — at once rustic and implacable — is that of Col. Eli McCullough, speaking to a WPA recorder on the occasion of his 100th birthday. “I was the first male child of this new republic,” he claims, referring not to the United States but to the short-lived Republic of Texas. In 1846, his father moved the family past the line of settlement into the Comanche hunting grounds. Game filled the virgin land; the soil nurtured chest-high grass. “The only problem,” Eli notes, “was keeping your scalp attached.”

For those of us old enough to have watched the portrayal of Indians shift from bloodcurdling villains to romanticized victims, “The Son” arrives like a flaming arrow in the bleeding liberal heart of political correctness. The Indians who butcher Eli’s family early in the novel behave with a searing degree of gleeful cruelty — matched only by the atrocities committed by soldiers charged with exterminating them.

What follows is a spectacular captivity narrative: the harrowing report of a boy adopted into a Comanche band, absorbed into a doomed nomadic culture he learns to adore. After enduring (and witnessing) a series of grisly ordeals, Eli — renamed “Tiehteti” — experiences a species of masculine freedom that makes so-called liberty in the United States seem small and cramped.

From buffalo hunts to sexual relations to battles with Rangers and smallpox, Eli’s story gallops along toward a tragic conclusion that is complicated by his abiding affection for these people who slaughtered his family. He celebrates and mourns a vibrant, violent way of life that seems more authentic to him than the pampered, regulated existence he lives to see in the 20th century.

Indeed, there’s so much panting adventure in Eli’s tale of life among and after the Comanches that it’s hard to imagine at first how the two other narrators could possibly compete. For several chapters, I resented every absence from his raw life. But Eli’s son and great-granddaughter offer something equally compelling, and it’s another demonstration of Meyer’s skill that he can create and blend these disparate voices so effectively.

We meet Eli’s great-granddaughter, Jeanne Anne McCullough, on March 3, 2012, when she’s 86 years old. For some reason, she’s lying on the floor of the living room in her colossal mansion; the air is heavy with the smell of natural gas. In these confusing final moments, time expands, and Jeanne Anne’s thoughts wander through the events of her remarkable life: from her beginnings as the superfluous daughter of an incompetent rancher to her fame as one of the world’s wealthiest women.

Between these two larger-than-life figures crouches Peter McCullough, Eli’s misanthropic son and Jeanne Anne’s grandfather, otherwise known as “the great disappointment.” He comes to us in a series of embittered diary entries written just before World War I when the McCulloughs finally move with obliterating force against a Mexican family living adjacent to their omnivorous ranch.

Repelled by the racism of the era, Peter serves as a tireless critic of his father’s brutality to their Mexican neighbors. But for all his moral superiority, he’s a rather impotent character — so troubled, so shocked, so insufferable. “You don’t care for anyone but yourself and your sadness,” his wife tells him. While his father and granddaughter intuit how to harness the forces transforming the world, Peter can only lament and despair — a prairie Hamlet among the Texas Medicis.

I could no more convey the scope of “The Son” than I could capture the boundless plains of Texas. With this family that stretches from our war with Mexico to our invasion of Iraq, Meyer has given us an extraordinary orchestration of American history, a testament to the fact that all victors erect their empires on bones bleached by the light of self-righteousness.

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