This is a big summer blockbuster of a novel—a huge book that can keep one occupied for days. The world looks a little different after a session with it—we feel wonder and regret in equal shares: wonder at human diversity and commonality evident at the same time; regret at our inability to comprehend this and share our bounty until it is too late.
Three generations of Texans represented by Eli, Peter, and Jeanne struggle through Comanche raids and the discovery of oil from the mid-nineteenth through the twentieth centuries. Eli is the "son" about whom the others revolve, and his life is the most finely described and keenly felt. But the time and distance we readers enjoy as the generations play out is what brings the book to fruition: life lessons and realizations about the human condition result.
Comparisons have been made of Philipp Meyer with Cormac McCarthy and I can see why: the country is that same hard, brutal, violent landscape that McCarthy paints so memorably. Meyer has his own style, however. Sentences are longer and in this novel the timeline is far longer. We see great expanses of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries through the eyes and voices of three generations. Meyer shifts point of view and time frequently, and he writes in the voice of a woman—an unusual woman that often thinks like a man, it could be argued—but that is something I don’t recall McCarthy attempting.
The threads come together at the end, and we see who sired whom, and which family is still standing. What is remarkable as the story unfolds, is how the large scope of the story smooths out the individual agonies and gives us instead a kind of justice—what we like to call divine justice—but it is really no more than human history to date. If it went on a little longer, perhaps, the wheel would have turned once again. There may be some in the future who have actually learned from our past, but judging from the folks that survive in this book, the hope is a faint one.
Jeanne : "But the slackening. By five she and her brothers were throwing loops. By ten she was at the branding fire. Her grandchildren were not good at anything and did not have much interest in anything either. She wondered if the Colonel would even recognize them as his descendants, felt briefly defensive for them, but of course it was true. Something was happening to the human race.
That is what all old people think, she decided…
When the first men arrived, she told them, there were mammoths, giant buffalo, giant horses, saber-toothed tigers, and giant bears. The American cheetah—the only animal on earth that could outrun a pronghorn antelope.
Her grandsons … went inside to watch television."
Jeanne: "Of course you wanted your children to have it better than you had. But at what point was it not better at all? People needed something to worry about or they would destroy themselves, and she thought of her grandchildren and all the grandchildren yet to come."
Eli: "That I’d done wrong was plain. I was not thick enough to believe I might have saved the ponies from Ranald Mackenzie’s troopers, but you could never say for certain. A single man can make a difference."
Eli: "Toshaway had been right: you had to love others more than you loved your own body, otherwise you would be destroyed, whether from the inside or out, it didn’t matter. You could butcher and pillage, but as long as you did it for people you loved, it never mattered…there is a myth about the West, that it was founded and ruled by loners, while the truth is just the opposite; the loner is a mental weakling, and was seen as such, and treated with suspicion. You did not live long without someone watching your back and there were very few people, white or Indian, who did not see a stranger in the night and invite him to join the campfire."
Peter: "To listen to the three of them talk about the death of Dutch Hollis, you might have thought there had been some accident, a lightning strike, flash flood, the hand of God. Not my son’s. Had to do it, acted on instinct, the sheriff just nodding away, sipping our whiskey, my father refilling his glass.
Considered interrupting them to note that the entire history of humanity is marked by a single inexorable movement—from animal instinct toward rational thought, from inborn behavior toward acquired knowledge. A half-grown panther abandoned in the wilderness will grow up to be a perfectly normal panther. But a half-grown child similarly abandoned will grow up into an unrecognizable savage, unfit for normal society. Yet there are those who insist the opposite: that we are creatures of instinct, like wolves."
Philipp Meyer is a remarkable writer. You really do not want to miss this big, absorbing saga. Meyer has written another novel, American Rust, which was likewise memorable, about living in the Rust Belt in Pennsylvania. These are, for the most part, books about men. But that is fine—he does this with great skill. I think I will always have Meyer on my list of must-reads.
You can buy this book here: Tweet