Monday, September 02, 2013

Manifest Destiny, Philipp Meyer, and the way the West was won

New Mexico butte (Public Domain)
I've always loved a good Western. My brothers and I would stay up late on Saturday nights to watch John Wayne movies and after school, it was often Bonanza, Gun Smoke, and even The Big Valley, where the hair was teased and all the women were impossibly fashionable. From My Darling Clementine to Unforgiven and Deadwood, I'm still stuck on the genre. As a kid, who doesn't romanticize the cowboys and Indians, the non-stop action of shootouts, and galloping horses across vast plains? All that messy American history hasn't yet dimmed the glory of the Wild West.

Of course, a more sophisticated understanding of the history of settling the west brings with it all sorts of moral conundrums, and the best of the Western genre, whether in film or books, gets the deep ambivalence at the heart of it. The lines between "bad" guys and "good" guys blur; one minute you're cheering for the intrepid pioneers circling their wagons and the next, you're admiring the courage of the Sioux or Apache warriors attacking the wagons. It's the heyday of the anti-hero: Billy the Kid and Jesse James sticking it to the Man. Occupy Dodge City!
Dodge City Peace Commissioners: Wyatt Earp, front center (Public Domain)
At some point ambivalence turns to downright disillusion. Wounded Knee, Powder River, and Border Wars pile up the bodies on the ever-expanding frontier in the history books. Rivers of blood and displacement accompany the march westward, and yet the fascination lingers. The very lostness of the myth compels the imagination, a sad enchantment takes over. You start with Wyatt Earp and are left with the hideous Judge Holden in McCarthy's Blood Meridian.

All that was taken belonged to someone else first. And that is what brings me to Philipp Meyer's newest novel, The Son. It is an oft-repeated phrase in the lives of three generations of the McCullough family of Texas, whose history spans a period from the 1800s through 2012. The first McCullough we hear from is the formidable Eli, known as The Colonel, his story set as a WPA recording in 1936. Occupying a homestead beyond the settlement line in 1846 near Pedernales, thirteen-year-old Eli recounts the brutal murders of his family by raiding Comanches while his father is absent. He is kidnapped and taken west by the Comanche band, giving us the most thrilling parts of the novel. After his slow assimilation into the tribe and eventual return to his white roots, Eli builds the McCullough holdings, section by section, and passes it to his ancestors.

The story then alternates between Eli's remembrances, his son Peter's journals, and a great-granddaughter, Jeannie, who brings us into the present day. Along the way, history unfolds from the final surrender of the great Comanche Chief Quanah Parker, through the Border Wars with Mexico and two world wars, to the age of the oil barons.

Meyer's novel is masterful, an old-style epic of an American family that confronts the moral quagmire of what Manifest Destiny really entails -- wiping out all that is "other" in the quest to remake a continent into an American ideal. It's a story of decline and fall in the Edward Gibbon line: of a family, of the Native Americans, of Mexican territorial ambitions, and of the land itself, stripped and denuded, first for cattle and then for oil.

What keeps the novel from becoming a strident and oversimplified critique of evil American empire-building is that the characters themselves mourn the losses that will bring them ever greater wealth and power, a quintessentially American dilemma. Eli grieves more for his Comanche family than his white one, misses the empty plains and thigh-high grasses of his boyhood. For Peter, the debilitating guilt that springs from his family's raid on their Mexican neighbors blights his life; even the hard-nosed Jeannie mourns the disappearance of the old ranching lifestyle that makes possible her oil fortune and hard-won entry into the male-dominated world of business. Everything is bought at a price and sometimes the price makes all the rest, if not quite worthless, terribly fractured.

On the craftsman's level, Meyer's meticulous detailing of the Comanche lifestyle through the voice of Eli often reminded me of Melville's descriptions of the whaling life in Moby Dick. Eli takes the reader through the process of killing the buffalo -- in what manner the animal was dispatched, who performed the various tasks of disassembly, who was allowed the chief delicacies, and the further uses of each and every part in stomach-churning specificity. Similarly, the making of lariats, bows and arrows, and tipis is lovingly rendered -- all the more lovely because even in Eli's days, these things become meaningless anachronisms.

Meyer's writing is very finely nuanced; he balances the weight of history with the storytelling, and most impressive of all, he pulls off an ending that is both practically satisfying and wonderfully symbolic -- two things that don't often go hand-in-hand.

From The Son, by Philipp Meyer, Chapter Nineteen:

All in all, it was the greatest summer I had ever had.... I might be killed any day, by whites or hostile Indians, I might be run down by a grizzly or a pack of buffalo wolves, but I rarely did anything I didn't feel like doing, and maybe this was the main difference between the whites and the Comanches, which was the whites were willing to trade all their freedom to live longer and eat better, and the Comanches were not willing to trade any of it.