The American frontier, though swallowed up by modernity and strip malls, still lives and breathes in our imagination and, by proxy, art. Or maybe it’s the spirit that still beats in fecund minds, the notion of wide open spaces away from the bustle of cities, of a place where a man or woman has the room to wander and even behave in ways deemed unsuitable for a more civilized milieu. Manifest Destiny is such an American attitude and in Philipp Meyer’s masterful second novel, The Son, the concept lives on. However, this is no romanticized version of the taming of the Southwest. Just like any of Cormac McCarthy’s novels that deal with the same place, Meyer’s characters exist in a cruel world filled with bloodshed, betrayal and ultimately comeuppance for one’s actions.

Meyer’s novel is multigenerational in the truest sense as chapters rotate between three characters in his McCullough clan, Texan cattle barons who expand their territory through brutal means, eventually striking it big with oil. Each of these characters struggles with the sins of their fathers before them, as it often happens in books about people who make their money off the blood of others.

Looming over all the characters in The Son is Eli McCullough, a man who lives nearly 100 years. In his chapters, Eli recounts the story of his past via a historical recording, beginning with his capture by the very Comanches who slaughter his mother, sister and brother, but keep Eli hostage. Soon enough, he proves himself to the Indians and becomes a member of the tribe. Here, Eli learns how to hunt buffalo; how to sleep with women and how to murder and scalp men. Meyer spares no detail in his description of Comanche life, his quotidian detail equal to Melville’s minutiae of whaling in Moby Dick. However, these are not the noble Indians of other books on frontier life. Eli’s tribe is full of opportunists, men who get rich by stealing from and slaughtering other people. This is a lesson the boy takes to heart, and something he passes on to his family once he is eventually reintroduced to Texan society, a theme that Meyer returns to in future points of his novel.

Is theft the true, lasting value of American identity? Like President George W. Bush, Eli McCullough is a charming, effusive individual who has the love of his cattle baron brethren, despite his vicious deeds. Of course, no one really cares when he’s stealing from Mexican landholders or anyone else who doesn’t fit into the mold of a self-made, stoic American man.

These ideals do not sit well with his son Peter, however, the second voice Meyer employs in his narrative. Considered a blight on the familial history by later McCulloughs, Peter sees through the veneer of his father’s charm and recognizes the brutal entrepreneur that lies beneath. As Peter struggles with his place, Eli leads an assault on a Mexican neighbor under false pretenses to steal his land. Though this takes place right before World War I, Eli’s attack rings of American policy under the Bush administration. Peter’s struggles continue when he falls for one of the survivors of the massacre, and must choose between her and his family.

The novel’s third voice is Jeannie, Peter’s granddaughter, picking up as she lays dying in 2012 and remembering her own past. A trailblazer who preferred the range to finishing school, Jeannie has taken over the family’s oil business and has assumed not only the mantle of its wealth, but the burden of responsibility for the sins of her blood. Jeannie knows hers is a dying breed. Her son is gay, her daughter into drugs. Her grandchildren would rather watch television and play video games then ride a horse. She is the last living carrier of the values so cherished by Eli, her great-grandfather whom she spent time with during her formative period.

Though an allegory through and through, The Son is foremost a pleasure to read. This is a red-blooded, thick novel filled with violence, love and conflict. Meyer’s characters, though severely flawed, are engaging and highly readable. The Son does seem in a hurry to end itself, despite its length, its final chapters less detailed than the rest. However, The Son can truly be defined an American novel, one that casts an unflinching glance at the atrocities committed in the name of capital, individuality and Manifest Destiny.

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