Review of The Son by Philipp Meyer
It was with dread and anticipation that I picked up The Son by Philipp Meyer. There was no way that a book about a Texas oil and ranching family complete with marauding Indians could ever entertain or dazzle me, or so I thought. You never know though. Who would have guessed that earlier this year a book about reincarnation and Hitler would catch my fancy. Hello! Life After Life by Kate Atkinson certainly did. I had nothing to dread, it turns out. The Son moved me in a cataclysmic way.
This epic western novel is the multi-generational story of the McCullough family. The chapters alternate between three points of view moving back and forth over the course of 175 years. It’s a juggling act of characters and unfolding stories that builds tension simultaneously through space and time. How did he keep it all straight. An audience member at Powell’s asked him if he had used a big black board and a genealogy tree. Meyer said, “I did but those things don’t actually work very well. What happens is after a time you’ve just got to internalize the story. In fact if you don’t, it’ll never be good. I think that when you’re manually keeping track of things, you’re screwed. The thing’s never gonna work. The real work is done in your sub-conscious.”
Although Meyer started out with eight characters, he threw out all but three. The first, Eli McCullough, is thirteen in 1849 when he is taken captive by the fierce Comanches after witnessing the rape and murder of his mother and sister. He soon becomes one of them adopting their ways, language, and even waging war against their enemies. Eventually, he returns to his roots, hungry for power, and stops at nothing to get what he wants.
Peter is Eli’s son and is the polar opposite of his father. He is bookish, passive, intellectual, and weighed down with a strong sense of morality. He carries guilt over the sins of his family. His voice is darkly wry.
Eli’s great-granddaughter is Jeannie, a woman who becomes tough in order to navigate the man’s world in which she chooses to move. She saves the family from bankruptcy, becomes one of the richest women in Texas, but makes sacrifices along the way.
The story is often brutal and bloody. There is murder performed in heinous ways. Torture is long and drawn-out. And, there is scalping–but it’s never gratuitous. Whereas, in some novels the blood is borne by evil men who have no redeeming qualities, Meyer’s cast of characters, including the Indians, never come across as soulless heathens. It’s more a case of those were the times, this was the culture, and that was the reality. There is sweetness, love, and tenderness on the Great Plains in enough quantities to make even a squeamish reader long for this story to last forever.
And the prose is smart and lyrical. At one point Peter thinks, “Perhaps this is why I am constantly disappointed–I expect good from the world, as a puppy might. Thus, like Prometheus, I am unmade every day.”
Meyer manages to express a sort of sympathy for all, including the white men, Mexicans, Germans, and Indians. They each come away looking as honorable as they are despicable. How does Meyer do this? It’s difficult enough to make a good character truly likable, but to make an unsympathetic character compelling is another thing.
One of the ways he achieves this, I think, is in the plethora of details that flush the story into a panoramic 3-D marvel. At Powell’s, Meyer talked about the hundreds of books he read during his research. He said he realized early on “how little I knew about the history of the American West, and Texas, and everything else.” But he didn’t stop there. Because he wanted an authentic voice, he needed to know what a buffalo looked like, what it smelled like, and what it tasted like. So he headed into the Texas dust for hands-on research. Meyer hunted deer with a bow and arrow, drank buffalo blood, and learned how to tan hides. He went to bed with a dictionary from 1880s so he could incorporate words from that time period into his characters language. A few days after Eli was captured by the Indians he says, “I had a dauncy spell but no one heard me over the wind.” It turns out dauncy is a word used to describe feeling icky. Rutting is the word Meyer used to describe having sex.
After five years of research and writing, Meyer finished The Son. But it turns out he wasn’t done yet. He told me he rewrote almost a third of the book after Ecco sent out the advanced reader copies. Later I read that some portions were rewritten 100 times. It shows.
I loved this book. It’s a riveting human drama full of love, hate, murder, renewal, blood, and lust. Yes, it’s entertaining, but more than that it teaches us something integral to the story of America. Meyer said, “Texas represents one pole of what the American mythology is…optimism…believe in yourself…” I learned a tremendous amount about the broken relationships between the disparate peoples of 19th-century Texas in The Son. I now know a lot more about different tribal customs than I ever did. And, when I was finished, I felt my attitude shift ever so slightly about all sorts of things, certainly about Texas, but also the Texas Rangers, slavery, immigration, and cattle ranching. It opened my eyes. I couldn’t put it down. It’s a Great American Novel if I ever saw one. I want it to win the National Book Award. Certainly, it will be an American classic. And probably a movie.