At 561 pages, “The Son” is a long novel that bears its weight with athletic confidence. The story rotates chapter by chapter through three distinct voices, members of the McCullough family born about 50 years apart. That triptych structure is demanding — for author and reader — but as these blazing testimonies begin to fuel one another, they burn even hotter.
The first voice — at once rustic and implacable — is that of Col. Eli McCullough, speaking to a WPA recorder on the occasion of his 100th birthday. “I was the first male child of this new republic,” he claims, referring not to the United States but to the short-lived Republic of Texas. In 1846, his father moved the family past the line of settlement into the Comanche hunting grounds. Game filled the virgin land; the soil nurtured chest-high grass. “The only problem,” Eli notes, “was keeping your scalp attached.”
For those of us old enough to have watched the portrayal of Indians shift from blood-curdling villains to romanticized victims, “The Son” arrives like a flaming arrow in the bleeding liberal heart of political correctness. The Indians who butcher Eli’s family early in the novel behave with a searing degree of gleeful cruelty — matched only by the atrocities committed by soldiers charged with exterminating them. You will never forget the lingering punishment meted out to one unfortunate settler. (Two weeks after reading Anthony Marra’s “Constellation of Vital Phenomena,” this fulfills my year’s quota for torture scenes.)
What follows is a spectacular captivity narrative: the harrowing report of a boy adopted into a Comanche band, absorbed into a doomed nomadic culture that he learns to adore. After enduring (and witnessing) a series of grisly ordeals, Eli — renamed “Tiehteti” — experiences a species of masculine freedom that makes so-called liberty in the United States seem small and cramped. “I slept when I wanted and ate when I wanted and did nothing all day that I didn’t feel like doing,” he says. “We rode and hunted and wrestled and made arrows. We slayed every living thing we laid eyes on — prairie chickens and prairie dogs, plovers and pheasants, blacktail deer and antelope; we launched arrows at panther and elk and bears of every size, dumping our kills in a camp for the women to clean, then walking off with our chests out.”
From buffalo hunts to sexual relations to battles with Rangers and smallpox, Eli’s story gallops along toward a tragic conclusion that is complicated by his abiding affection for these people who slaughtered his family. He celebrates and mourns a vibrant, violent way of life that seems more authentic to him than the pampered, regulated existence that he lives to see in the 20th century.