IN “REALITY IN AMERICA,” Lionel Trilling argued there were two strands in American fiction, with Henry James representing one and Theodore Dreiser the other. As Trilling put it, inimitably: “Dreiser and James: with that juxtaposition we are immediately at the dark and bloody crossroads where literature and politics meet.” Although the context of Trilling’s essay — the left wing of the American intelligentsia of the day — no longer obtains, the dichotomy is still useful. James was venerated for his psychological realism, formal complexity and sophistication, and critiqued for his politics (or lack thereof). Dreiser was lauded for his social realism, for being on the front lines of fiction for the cause (Occupy Fiction?), even if his novels were often “dull” and formally wanting. Or, as Trilling puts it, Dreiser’s books “have the awkwardness, the chaos, the heaviness which we associate with ‘reality.’ In the American metaphysic, reality is always material reality, hard, resistant, unformed, impenetrable, and unpleasant.”
Looking at American literary fiction today, the Jamesians seem to have won, at least when it comes to name recognition, the going price for first editions, and an author in the wake. Psychological realism is what tends to be lauded in award-winners (think Franzen, Roth, Strout). The Dreiserians — who also include authors such as Frank Norris, Jack London, Stephen Crane, John Dos Passos, and, perhaps, the exception that proves the rule, Edith Wharton — are fading from curricula and Flavorwire listicles of author trivia.
Perhaps for good reason. American social realists of the early 20th century often were clunky in their grasping to describe “the nation” or “the people” or “class” writ large. They wrote big, sprawling novels that tend to be tendentious and ponderous, or “awkward and chaotic” in Trilling’s words.
But I have a soft spot for these authors, and for social realism (full disclosure: I wrote a ponderous dissertation on the topic). Of contemporary character-centered literary fiction I have had enough: these days we have many well-written, clever, and insightful domestic novels. Fewer American authors are aiming for that pre-postmodern Big Picture or wrestling with ideas external to themselves or the self. Fewer seem animated by the idea that fiction might have political effects (here I duck from the ghost of Trilling, whom I revere), or at least are driven by thinking about politics and history in new ways. It may not surprise you to hear that some of my favorite working authors include Richard Powers and Hilary Mantel. Add to that list Philipp Meyer, who seems to be working directly in this vein of American fiction, claiming, as he writes a trilogy about America, the title of Dos Passos for the 21st century.
Meyer’s fist novel, American Rust, is the most successful novel yet about the post-industrial Midwest, even if there is a Dreiserian earnestness, an unfortunate sincerity to the novel, which sometimes veers into proselytizing. Meyer covers both the cause and effect of rust. He opens with a study of the effect, in a scene threaded with both Americana and ruin:
The mill itself had been like a small city, but they had closed in 1987, partially dismantled it ten years later; it now stood like an ancient ruin, its building grown over with bittersweet vine, devil’s tear thumb, and tree of heaven. The footprints of deer and coyotes crisscrossed the grounds; there was only the occasional human squat.
Still it was a quaint town: neat rows of white houses wrapping the hillside, church steeples and cobblestone streets, the tall silver domes of Orthodox cathedral. A place that had recently been well-off, its downtown full of historic stone buildings, mostly boarded up now.
Which is beautiful and resonant. Later he covers the cause, sounding a bit too much like a policy wonk:
You should have been here for the seventies, Bud. The department was buying new cruisers with Corvette engines maybe every three years. And then came the eighties, and then it wasn’t just that we lost all those jobs, it was that people didn’t have anything to be good at anymore.” He shrugged. “There’s only so good you can be about pushing a mop or emptying a bedpan. We’re trending backwards as a nation, probably for the first time in history, and it’s not the kids with the green hair and the bones through their noses. Personally I don’t care for it, but those things are inevitable. The real problem is the average citizen does not have a job he can be good at. You lose that, you lose the country.
As a rust belt resident, I was saddened to learn his follow-up novel would take place in Texas. The rust belt abandoned again! But I forgave him when I read The Son, which does for Texas what American Rust did for the Monongahela Valley. He swaps steel for cattle and oil, and the disaffected white working class for Hispanics, Native American and white settlers.
The Son opens with a transcript of a WPA tape recording of Colonel Eli McCullough, who was “the first male child of this new republic” of Texas, born in 1836, and ends, chronologically, in the present. In between we learn about how Eli was captured and raised Comanche (perhaps the best part of the book: rich in detail and gore), got rich on cattle, murdered a Mexican family and more (Eli, who lived 100 years, is Epic Personified: he covers the gamut). Ruthless and representative, Eli is Trilling’s American real: “hard, resistant, unformed, impenetrable, and unpleasant.”
The book is also narrated by a host of other characters, and the biggest supporting roles go to Eli’s son, Peter, weak-willed and wracked with guilt over his father’s actions, and his great-granddaughter, Jeannie, a no-nonsense capitalist who takes profits out of the oil slicks under the grazing fields. (Jeannie is the least convincing of the many characters; in this and his other novel, Meyer appears to have difficulty depicting women.)
The book also includes scandalous interracial affairs, estranged sons, rich people without scruples and, always, someone stealing someone else’s property. Meyer manages to combine “sprawling beach read” (or, as the back cover description puts it, “an epic multigenerational saga of power, blood, and the taming of the frontier”) with an incisive history of a complex, distasteful, fascinating Texas.
Yes, Meyer proselytizes; the following passage reminds me of why few today read the overwrought fiction of Thomas Wolfe:
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. The land was thirsty. Something primitive still in it, the land and people both; the only place like it she’d ever seen was Africa: savannah, perpetual heat and sun, thorns and blinding heat. A place without mercy. The birthplace of humanity.
But, as when describing how the Comanche used each part of a buffalo, Meyer gives us vivid historical fiction in all its granular detail, making gripping what one would assume boring and doing for, say, Comanche weapons what Melville did for whales. Here is one paragraph of a two-page description of how the Comanche constructed bows and arrows: “The strings were commonly sinew, which when dry shot arrows the fastest, but could not be depended on when wet. Some preferred horsehair, which shot slower, but was reliable in all conditions, and still others preferred bear gut.” Who knew?
I may have my ears boxed by formalists for saying this, but I learned a lot from reading The Son. I forgive Meyer his excesses because of his ambition. He is not shy about his claims — the epigraph to The Son comes from Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. I doubt Henry James would like The Son. But by taking up the mantle of American sprawling social novels and writing loose, baggy monsters that sweep in history, politics, culture and class — and doing so mostly with formal prowess — Meyer is standing in the middle of those bloody crossroads. I am happy to see him there.