It’s 6:30 a.m. and somewhere in the balmy dark, the feral hogs are trotting back from the nearby hay fields to make their bed in the mesquite timbers . I’m tiptoeing after the acclaimed 38-year-old novelist Philipp Meyer, one step behind and slightly to the right of him, clear of the radius of his Remington 700. And Meyer is one step behind our guide, a hulking, bearded man named Tink Pinkard, “a real teddy bear of a guy,” Meyer called him. It’s 73 degrees and the humid mid-April air is teeming with spring, crowded with bird chirps and clamoring with cicadas—that is to say, it is not the frigid fall hunting season. However, the 2.6 million feral hogs that maraud across Texas are always fair game.
Meyer, whose debut novel, American Rust, won a record advance of $400,000 and landed him on the New Yorker ’s twenty under forty list in 2010, says hunting is the most important thing in his life other than writing. This is his last chance to check out a friend’s secret spot outside Webberville, just 20 miles east of Austin, before heading back to New York to begin the promotion of his new novel, The Son, a 576-page multigenerational epic about a Texas oil-and-ranching dynasty that is one of the most highly anticipated novels of the year. Don Graham, one of the foremost scholars of Texas literature and a professor at the University of Texas, told me it was the most ambitious Texas novel in thirty years—since at least Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian or Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove .
Standing in the grass, Meyer looks like a fit and comely Tony Soprano, if Tony Soprano shaved his head, wore hiking pants, and tracked down animals with a sense of serious purpose. “The chamber is empty, but the gun,” Meyer says, holding the firearm upright, “is not pointed at anything you’re not actually going to destroy, ever.” He is carrying three rounds in the gun and two in his pocket (he doesn’t anticipate that the three of us will be able to sneak up on that many pigs), and he speaks in a firm-yet-calm tone that I’ve noticed unites responsible gun owners—those blessed with the certainty of knowing that what they’re saying is actually of grave consequence. Meyer isn’t just mansplaining. Earlier I confessed to him that the only other time I shot a gun, I trembled. And given that I’m sporting the Adidas track pants I wore to eight grade PE class and a pair of nine-year-old New Balances that look brand new, it’s probably fairly obvious that I’m just as afraid of physical activity.
Meyer, by contrast, learned to shoot when he was five years old. His mother is a painter and his father, never having finished his biology PhD, taught as an adjunct. They lived in rougher areas, first the East Village of New York in the seventies, when it was cheaper and quite a bit fiercer; then Hamden, Baltimore, the butt of all his classmates’ jokes. His family always kept guns around the house for defense. “If you’ve grown up with guns, the thought that someone might take them away makes your stomach churn,” Meyer tells me. “They make you feel safe. If you didn’t grow up with guns, if you don’t know how to use them, then the thought that someone else has them makes your stomach churn.” He adds, “The only time I had a gun pointed at me was by a crazy liberal.”
Pinkard is wearing a thin camouflage jacket, which Meyer complimented earlier.It’s Sitka, a company that sponsors Pinkard and makes silent hunting gear in a camo that’s specifically supposed to foil an animal’s vision. Animals, Meyer tells me, walk around with their eyes all relaxed and blurry—perpetually in a state of soft focus—so that they can see more around them. (“The eyes are in front: predator. The eyes are on the side: prey.”) Fortunately camo isn’t all that important, especially when it comes to hogs, an animal that can’t really see that well. What matters most is how you move. Prey animals scan for action, and then narrow in on it and focus.
Not knowing what else to do while I trail Meyer and Pinkard, I’m trying to will my eyes into soft-focus, forcing my lids to droop and imagining my vision unzipping around my head 180 degrees. In this hazy state, I kid myself into believing I see the spooky white sclera of animal eyes. Turns out that’s not even what you look for. Most of nature is vertical, Meyer says, so I’m supposed to be scanning for horizontal blobs—backs just loping along. Of course, I might not see anything. This is hunting, after all.
Specifically what we’re doing, Pinkard says, is a “walk-n-stalk.” Most Texans, Meyer says, hunt at feeders or stands, merely waiting for an animal to come into view and then taking aim. “But that’s not hunting” Meyer says. Instead, we’re tracking the animal, alert to every sound and smell.
Meyer started hunting deer recreationally with some rural friends when he was nineteen or so, but it became a moral imperative in college. He ran over a squirrel and felt terrible about it, even though he ate ribs and hamburgers without a second thought. He went vegetarian for a while, but was always hungry, so he decided to “own” up to the killing, to “start seeing what’s horrible about it.” Now he hunts for a month or so a year.
We’ve got ten minutes until the 6:59 sunrise. As we amble toward the Colorado River, the men’s instincts tell them not to take a risk on the three lumps they see way off in the distance. It’s not certain they’ll get a clean shot. So we toe closer, hanging tight to the mesquite fringe. I stare and stare but without binoculars, or a scope, I see only the blackness. After we advance 100 meters, that’s all the men see, too. We’ve lost