by Daniel AlarcónBuy at Powell’s »
John McElwee: It’s a tall order to pit such vastly different, accomplished novels against each other. Meyer’s is a 200-year, six-generation-spanning saga of power and blood-reckoning in Texas. Alarcón’s is a formally daring take on art and repression in an anonymous but thinly veiled Peru. Cowboys and Indians versus Playwrights and Actors.
I’ll do my best, starting with the Meyer.
I hesitate to bandy about words like “Western” and “epic,” so I’ll just say that The Son is a very big book, a sort of foundational myth of the American frontier. It takes as its spine the life and legacy of Eli McCullough, aka “the Colonel,” born “the first male child” of Texas, who spends the next century at war. First, alongside the Comanche band that abducts, then embraces, him in his youth. Later, amongst Texas Rangers, Confederate cavalry, and hired hands, as he carves out a place for a perennial outsider such as himself. It ends up being a very big place, and the McCullough name becomes one of the wealthiest and most powerful in Texas.
The Colonel’s testament—as recorded by the WPA—is interspersed with the journals of his son Peter, who eschews his father’s Comanche-influenced admonition that “no land was ever acquired honestly in the history of the earth.” Peter is riddled with guilt over the bloody seizure of their property—and its steady ruination, arranged by the Colonel himself, for the purposes of fortunes in ranching and, later, oil. Peter’s granddaughter, Jeannie, is decidedly less squeamish and carries the family banner—multiplying profit—through Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait and to the turn of the 20th century, at once bolstered and, ultimately, undone by the Colonel’s view that “the story of the human race” is one of “soil to sand, fertile to barren, fruit to thorns. It is all we know how to do.”
But Peter’s father-haunted musings grow tiresome. Jeannie, though a refreshing and well-wrought female voice, is unfortunately more affecting as a failed East Coast debutante than an international oil magnate. I often found myself, in their chapters, longing to get back to the Colonel’s gripping portrayals of life on the frontier and amongst the Comanche, the extraordinary detail of which made me feel almost prepared to find some wilderness and set off into it for good.
Their stories, like their lives, unfold in the Colonel’s shadow, but this hardly detracts from a novel of such remarkable scope and heartbreaking specifics. This is the type of book you read at night until your eyes go crooked and you fall asleep with the light on.
One of the times this happened, I actually had a nightmare inspired by the book—being pursued by a pale rider in my childhood backyard—a feat that puts it in rare company with Frankenstein and Blood Meridian. The McCarthy comparisons people tend to throw at Meyer make sense in this respect, and, I’ll add, in the way he changed my view of humanity.
Mostly because of the startling way Meyer collapses time—like WJ Cash writing with Alan Gurganus’s heart—with its demonstration of how recently an entire way of life, from origin story to corporate hegemony, was ripped from the wild and from aboriginal hands. The sensation is best described by Jeannie: “As for JFK, it had not surprised her. The year he died, there were still living Texans who had seen their parents scalped by Indians.”
Daniel Alarcón’s At Night We Walk in Circles is a more slippery, complex novel, with many faces. It forgoes the narrative appeal of war for a deeper reflection on the illusion and disillusion that rides in war’s wake. At heart, it’s about art and idealism during a time when all the artists and idealists seem to have been eliminated—or, more accurately, about an artist prat-falling on the sword of his own craft.
The novel centers around a renegade theater troupe called Diciembre—legendary for its subversive productions during the “anxious years” of civil war in the ’80s—which has been defunct since its leader, Henry Nuñez, was arrested on trumped-up terrorism charges in 1986 and incarcerated for several months in the country’s most notorious prison, known as Collectors.
The story, related in a collage of interviews, journal extracts, and longer, inspired narrative bursts by an obsessive journalist, kicks off 15 years later, when Henry announces a revival of Diciembre. A young actor named Nelson, eager for a new direction in his stalled life, responds to his idol’s call and wins a part in his landmark play, “The Idiot President.” Leaving his widowed mother and on-again off-again girlfriend, Ixta, in the capital, Nelson embarks on a months-long tour of the production, performing in taverns, homes, fields, and markets across the country’s war-scarred, Andean interior.
We’re warned from the beginning that Nelson will meet a dark end, and, accordingly, their jaunt goes awry when Henry, captive to his experience in Collectors, reroutes the tour—a betrayal that forces his protégé to assume new roles for which he’s dangerously unprepared. The fourth wall crumbles in a bad way, and players and audience alike realize that, in Nelson’s words, “One could not enter the world of a play. One could not escape one’s life.”
The fact that I can tell you this without giving much away is a mark of the novel’s ingenuity—and its undoing, in my reading. Alarcón, or his narrator, brilliantly distributes Henry’s and Nelson’s stories in an daring, elliptical manner throughout the novel, racking up accomplishments along the way. He pulls off a rare, unpretentious portrait of artists at work, a crystalline meditation on the cultural performance of peace, and a powerful, textured sense of place, in spite of the place’s namelessness.
For sure, I’ll never forget Alarcón’s deadpan descriptions of Collectors. He’s writing at white heat in these scenes, which are harrowing and moving and, at times, somehow, sweet.
There were men: ordinary men as you might find on any street, in any neighborhood, tall men short men, skinny men, fat men, black men, brown men, white men (though only a few of those), tired men, frantic men, old men. They looked like people I’d known, people I’d seen before, only harder, perhaps. But that was only part of the story: together, they were outnumbered by another group, the broken men, and these were legion.
And imagine the chill that registers when he realized the only type of men who aren’t there are guards.
It’s a packed, rich book—multiple excerpts appeared in the magazine that employs me—but all of this incendiary material gradually loses its immediacy, filtered as it is, Savage Detectives-style, through the perspective of his obsessive interlocutor. It’s supposed to be tongue in cheek, but the narrator’s telling is too studied, too insistent with foreshadowing and whodunit techniques—too present. In the end, artifice trumps emotional content, and I felt kicked out of the book. I couldn’t shake the sense that I was reading a clever, structural solution to the problem of these beautifully, horribly intertwined lives.
Each of these authors aim high, but it seems to me that Meyer, even if he bit off more than he could possibly chew, knew where he was headed, while Alarcón was looking for a way out of the whole thing.
Kevin: Of all the kinds of writers, the one I generally have the least patience for is the novelist who is in love with his process. When The Son came out it had the weight of a lot of hype behind it (based on the acclaim that Philipp Meyer’s first novel, American Rust, had received), and I read a lot of interviews in which he invariably talked about all the research he did, how he killed a buffalo and drank its blood, etc. I lost a contact inside my skull from all the eye-rolling I was doing. I don’t have a problem with novelists who like to do a lot of hands-on research (I do it myself sometimes) but the suggestion that this kind of personal authenticity is a shortcut to superior literature is not something I subscribe to at all. There are plenty of truly awful, over-researched novels out there, and a white guy suckling on a buffalo aorta does not magically bestow upon him the collective consciousness of the Comanche. Undoubtedly, I was being unfair to Meyer—what I was reacting to was the media’s fascination with his unusual prep work more than his own feelings about it—but I’m just copping to my reaction at the time. I want a novel to help me discover what it means to be me, not what it’s like to be an author without a gag reflex.
John: I agree that the media likes to fetishize the novelist as method-writer, as though we’re some sort of exotic species. When The Funny Man came out, one or two interviewers wanted to know how long I’d done stand-up, when the reality is I couldn’t imagine doing such a thing. To my knowledge, you didn’t perform any human cloning experiments for Cast of Shadows.
I’m certain that Meyer’s research helped inform his work, but writing is a work of imagination, not transcription. My experience, at least, is that first-hand research isn’t intended for accuracy as much as it primes the old subconscious with interesting tidbits that come out in unexpected ways. As you say, there’s nothing particularly mystical about it, but sometimes I feel we like to think so—that if we can hit a moving target from horseback with our bow and arrow, the book that results from the research must be good. But I think it’s all a confidence game.
Kevin: No doubt. As I said, I was out of line, a fact that was wholly confirmed when I finally read The Son. I think it’s just a terrific book, one that reminded me of other westerns and historical novels I’ve loved, McCarthy, yes, but also McMurtry and Michener. All those M writers—Meyer included now—look awfully good together on my carefully alphabetized shelves.
I agree with Judge McElwee that the Eli chapters are superior to the Peter and Jeannie ones, but you need the presence of the later generations to make Eli’s story relevant. The modern context makes the Eli bits so much better. This novel, with only its best parts intact, wouldn’t be half as good. The Son was easily one of my three or four favorite novels of the year.
And hell, if I drank a carafe of buffalo blood I probably wouldn’t shut up about it either.
John: One of the tough things for The Son is that it wears its ambition on its sleeve: not just in Meyer’s public persona, but the very scope and intent of the book. The book clearly aims to be a commentary on the American mythos. That’s pretty big game, and an admirable ambition. I think it falls a hair short, which is why it hasn’t been quite as celebrated as I would’ve thought when it first arrived on scene. It’s really really good, but it intends to be great.
Kevin: That’s an interesting observation, because the parts that I think all of us like the least are the parts that raise the stakes ambition-wise for The Son. If this were just a story about Eli, it would be an outstanding genre piece, a fairly old-fashioned (if violent) western, a detailed work of historical fiction. The more contemporary stories, which provide some meaning to Eli’s adventures and take the long view of history, raise the bar for Meyer, but perhaps (in your view and Judge McElwee’s) they aren’t great enough to get The Son over the bar at that new height. It’s a fine point that I hope won’t put people off the novel, because I still think it’s terrific.
I also agree with Judge McElwee that At Night We Walk in Circles is a very good book. Parts of the novel are truly inspired (I actually want to see “The Idiot President,” the play within the story) and some of the more absurd turns the novel takes in the second half were surprising in the best way. Judge McElwee found Alarcón’s mysterious journalist/narrator distracting and I agree somewhat (especially after his identity and his stake in the story are revealed), but he also solves the problem of the omniscient narrator (who the hell is telling me this story, and how does he know all that, and if he knows everything why is he only telling me some of it?), which I usually find far more off-putting. I call it a net positive.
John: I’ve owned At Night We Walk in Circles since the week of its release, well before it was selected for the Tournament, and I still haven’t read it. Am I the only one that buys far more books than I could ever read? I still have Bleeding Edge on my shelf, also from the week of release. I actually don’t know why I have to buy so many books since publishers should be falling over themselves to send them to me for free (hint hint), but I’m sort of mystified that I couldn’t manage to read a book I’ve actually been pretty excited about. Thankfully, it sounds like a novel I should read, so I’m glad it’s there waiting.
Kevin: Wait, do you really not get free books piled at your doorstep every day? I can’t believe that. Don’t you write one of the last weekly columns published by a major metropolitan newspaper still dedicated not just to reading, but specifically to the mysterious art of recommending books to readers? (A column whose origins began during this Tournament, I should add.) That’s crazy. Yes, I think you will really dig At Night We Walk in Circles, John. I suspect it will end up in the Biblioracle’s regular recommendation rotation.
John: We’ve had two major opening-round upsets thus far, with Hill William and Eleanor & Park advancing, but if Long Division can take out The Goldfinch tomorrow, it would have to be the biggest surprise in the history of the Tournament.