Philipp Meyer: a cautionary tale in the heart of a history
Philipp Meyer’s second novel is a sturdy Western and a portrait of the violent clashes and land clearances that facilitated the rise of the US. It poses the question, what is that country about?
Six tribal leaders, circa 1900: left to right, Little Plume (Piegan), Buckskin Charley (Ute), Geronimo (Chiricahua Apache), Quanah Parker (Comanche), Hollow Horn Bear (Brulé Sioux), and American Horse (Oglala Sioux). Photograph: Buyenlarge/Getty Images
On the acknowledgements page of his new novel, The Son, Philipp Meyer concludes with a line that is as staggering as it is blunt: “It is estimated that the Comanche people suffered a 98 per cent population loss during the middle period of the 19th century.”
The statistic hints at an apologia contained in the waiting story; a presentation of an all-but-disappeared people communing with the spirits and the bountiful landscape. Instead, a group of Comanche materialise in the opening chapters, happening upon the McCullough homestead on the Padernales, in West Texas. It is the spring of 1849. Inside, Natalia has cooked up a sumptuous feast for herself and her three children as a reflexive punishment for her husband’s rash decision to go chasing after horse thieves, leaving his family vulnerable and exposed. The food is delicious, tallow candles are lit, wine is open: it is as if Natalia has had a premonition.
By midnight, Indians have gathered at the house. One of the children, Eli McCullough, describes what happens in hallucinatory and unflinching prose. His mother is raped repeatedly and then butchered in her doorway. His sister Elizabeth, beautiful and critical of Eli’s outdoors sensibility, is also raped and mutilated. The raiding Comanches are casual and cheerful as they go about their work, joking as they destroy the family piano with an axe and use books as padding.
Eli’s brother Martin, bookish and bright, is beaten and ridiculed. His killing echoes through the 530 pages replete with violence, because he faces his slaying with such unexpected stoicism that even the Comanches are spooked. And Eli himself is whisked into the heart of American mythology; the hardy white orphan adopted by his captors and a willing participant in the kill-or-be-killed frontier philosophy.
“They were a daily occurrence,” Meyer says of the raid, walking across the living room of his apartment to a bookcase which has row upon row of books that chronicle everything from plant life in Texas to first-hand accounts of the frontier life.
“That scene was the standard: if you were a woman, you were going to be raped. If you were old, you were going to be raped and killed. If you were young, you would be raped and hopefully taken. This is not a worst-case scenario: this is based on thousands and thousands of cases. And because of the double standard about sex then, female captives returning to white society had enormous trouble adapting because everyone knew they had had sex with Indians and were basically untouchable. But it is important to remember this is not something the Native Americans invented. The white mentality was: a female Indian would make more Indians, so kill her; and little Indians grow up to be big Indians, so kill them. It was wholesale butchery on both side. The Comanches did it to the Apaches. The thing that made the Comanches different was that they found they used this one piece of technology – the horse – better than anyone else.”
Meyer lives in a 1920s-era apartment overlooking Tompkins Square in the East village, a pricey bohemian quarter of Manhattan that is teeming with faux hippies, vegans and peaceniks. It seems like a safe bet that Meyer’s is the only apartment in the square mile that features a deer head on the wall and what looks like a six-shooter on the sideboard. If you open his freezer, you will find it stuffed with deer meat and wild boar; animals he killed, skinned, parcelled and freezepacked.