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

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.

“I just cooked up some venison sausage before you arrived,” he says cheerfully. Still, he admits that he would have found it difficult to write The Son in New York. The research he conducted has already generated its own legend.

Ostensibly a city boy, Meyer explored his taste for hunting and the outdoors with zest, entering Daniel Day-Lewis country in his quest for authenticity. He learned to shoot with a bow and to track animals. He would leave his desk in Austin and drive eight hours just to immerse himself in the Texan landscape, often sleeping outdoors.

He spoke with Comanche friends, estimates that he read around 300 texts and in a revelation that is destined to follow him through his literary life, admitted or boasted that he drank warm buffalo blood immediately after a kill, because that is what the Comanche did.

Through Eli’s testimony, Meyer presents the frontiers Comanche as the imperfect creatures they must have been by virtue of being human – as ribald, lazy, brave, noble, ingenious, loving, dishonest and vulnerable and varied as any other band of society. There are three central narrators in the book – Eli, his son Peter who suffers under the immensity of Eli’s relentless, acquisitive nature and Eli’s great-granddaughter Jeanne Anne McCullough, born in 1926 and, in 2012, an isolated matriarch of the oil and farm empire which Eli willed into magnificent success.

The Son is both a sturdy Western and a deft portrait of the skulduggery and land clearances that facilitated the rise of the US as an oil and agrarian giant. Buried at the heart of the novel is the implicit question: what in hell is the US about?

When Meyer set out to write the story of the McCullough family, he was uncomfortable with the prevailing portrayals of Native Americans; both the old television Westerns, which cast them as barbaric villains chasing down stagecoaches, and the revisionist treatments, which obscured them in a fog of spirituality and reverence. Neither, he believes, is accurate.

“There were no absolutes. They were just people. I knew when I was writing that massacre that I would catch flak . . . But no tribe – with the exception of a few very peaceful ones – gave up their land without a fight. In a way, the white man was just another f**king strong tribe. It was that simple.”

The trouble is that the land-grabbing, the slaughter, the reservations and assimilation of Native Americans into white society has been all but whitewashed from America’s official story. “The empty-plains myth is what we were taught. In school, everyone learns about the Louisiana Purchase: oh, we bought all that land from France. Well, where did the French get it? There is no real context given,” says Meyer.

The Son reopens the debate. It is Meyer’s second novel and a snug companion piece to his debut, American Rust, which opens with a violent scene in “baby-this-town-rips-the-bones-from- your-back” Pennsylvania and its effects on two unlikely friends, the former high-school football star and his introspective friend.

Impoverished childhood
Meyer’s path towards writing is a story in itself. An impoverished childhood in Baltimore led to the decision to ditch school early before rehabilitation came through local colleges and eventual scholarship to Cornell. Wall Street followed when Meyer got a tip from a friend that 26-year-olds were earning half a million a year trading derivatives. He didn’t fully know what that entailed – but wanted the money. “My parents were, and are, wonderful but I grew up poor and just knew I wasn’t going to be poor. I was certain of that.”

For two-and-a-half years, he wore the suits, was obscenely well paid, watched his expenses shoot up in tandem with his salary and began bitching to himself about the hollowness of his trade.

“I guess it is always going to exist because it is not going to be heavily regulated. It never will be. Because the talented people all go to work there. On average, they are very bright and very confident. Type A people.”

By the end, he was attending IMF protests in Washington with friends and then returning to trades on Monday morning. He quit Wall Street and had some savings that quickly ran out while he completed a second novel, which was rejected. By then, he was 30 and back in Baltimore, living with his parents and struggling to make a breakthrough. Admission to the Michener programme in Texas was a salvation of sorts, and American Rust (2009) was published while he was there.

Meyer is chatty, affable and comes across as at once intensely focused and scattershot, leaping up from his portmanteau to show some stone arrowheads he discovered while walking in Texas, openly explaining his shifting moral perspective on hunting animals – “I ran over this squirrel and it bothered me. I realised the next day that I had eaten three meat dishes without even giving those animals the respect to know where the meat had come from” – and mocking himself for moaning at the city-hopping nature of his autumn book tour. He reportedly earned a $1 million advance for The Son, which has been compared in scope and ambition to the novels of Cormac McCarthy and Larry McMurtry. It certainly reinforces the overwhelming message in McCarthy’s work – that America was shaped by a dazzling parade of violence and killing.

There are many victims in The Son: Mexican Americans, native Americans and white Americans – including one unforgettable, if nameless, trader captured alive so his hands and feet might be toasted over small fires for the entertainment of the tribe.

When the dust settled, with the evisceration of the Lakota Sioux tribe at Wounded Knee in 1895, the Native Americans were the vanquished and dispossessed. And although Meyer can rationalise the inevitability of this, he talks with such scrupulous knowledge about and respect for their way of life and how quickly it vanished that you feel he believes what happened was a tragedy central to the American story.

“Well, I feel we have not dealt with it yet. There is enormous hypocrisy in that it is not put in context. The most important war was the ongoing war to take the land from the Native Americans: there were 250 different languages spoken here when we got here. That war went on for 300 years. And I think it explains the US’s comfort with guns and, to some degree, violence. We haven’t faced up to this yet. There are 15,000 Comanche now and there is a sense of grievance in the same way that most African-Americans are aware that their ancestors were held as slaves. It happened 130 years ago . . . are they still paying the price today? Yes.”