The Son by Philipp Meyer

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The Son by Philipp Meyer

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Rebecca Foster
Reviewed by Rebecca Foster
Summary: Meyer's sweeping Western saga about one Texas family – ranging from the 1840s to the present day – brims with violence and philosophical tension. This momentous American story ranks amongst the best novels of the new century.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 561 Date: July 2013
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9780857209436

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Philipp Meyer's second novel, The Son, is an epic, multi-generational saga of Texas life. Tracing the McCullough family from the middle of the nineteenth century to the present day, Meyer joins those writing today's masterpieces of American 'dirty realism': Ron Rash, David Vann, Richard Ford and especially Cormac McCarthy. Like McCarthy's Blood Meridian, The Son is a gory Western that transcends a simplistic cowboys-versus-Indians dichotomy to draw broader conclusions about the universality of violence in a nihilistic world.

The novel's action opens in 1849, when thirteen-year-old Eli McCullough's home is attacked by Comanches and he sees his mother and sister raped and murdered in front of him. Eli is kidnapped and quickly assimilates into the tribe, living under the name Tiehteti for over two years and becoming adept at hunting – both animals and men.

Eli's first-person narration finds an echo in his son Peter's diary, which, beginning in 1915, reflects on his family's blood feud with the Mexican Garcia clan. Peter is a melancholic soul, haunted by his family's past and seeing no hope in his future – at least, that is, until the only survivor of the Garcia massacre re-enters his life.

The third story belongs to Jeannie, Eli's great-granddaughter. Aged eighty-six and failing fast in the present-day narrative, Jeannie (or 'J.A.', in an allusion to cult TV show Dallas), made her family's millions after abandoning cattle for oil. Growing up in an all-male household and profession, Jeannie has had to suppress 'feminine' virtues like compassion, but her workaholic habits have threatened to drive her children away.

In alternating sections, Meyer weaves together Eli's Comanche initiation, Peter's depressive meditations on his family that 'lives by the sword,' and Jeannie's gradual slide into moral compromises, all in absolutely convincing period detail. Not least of Meyer's achievements is providing a genuine picture of a woman's experience. (I only wish he would have given Jeannie the first-person privileges afforded to Eli and Peter; Eli's adventures could have been conveyed just as well through third-person omniscient narration, but the more personal perspective would have been an even more revolutionary attempt to get inside a woman's mind and body through descriptions of menstruation, sex and postpartum depression.)

There is cinematic vividness and immediacy to the prose, such that each of the three plots might evoke a different film: Eli's time with the Comanche recalls Dances With Wolves; Peter's Tex-Mex angst brings to mind Orson Welles's Touch of Evil; and Jeannie's part in the rise of Big Oil consciously echoes Western epic Giant, which starred Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean – in his last film role – and was based on an Edna Ferber (in a sly intertextual gesture, Meyer has Ferber appear briefly as a character in the novel).

Meyer's greatest debt is certainly to McCarthy, whom he follows in both setting and style: their sentences have a run-on quality, with clauses often joined by comma splices instead of semicolons. Moreover, they share a deadpan, bawdy humour that sometimes feels out of place amidst such apocalyptically serious subject matter. In addition, Eli is a grandiose, larger-than-life character who in his judicious death-dealing resembles Judge Holden, the chilling villain of Blood Meridian (besides which, I can hardly imagine another fictional character who would get away with saying 'absquatulation' when 'departure' would do).

This is not a panoramic novel of place à la James Michener or Edward Rutherfurd – otherwise, it would be entitled Texas; instead it prioritizes family inheritance, tracking what is passed on between generations in the violent new American empire. Although The Son might not seem a very evocative title, it does indicate the primacy of family relationships, as well as the prevalence of missing and surrogate father figures in the novel, and also hints at the future paths the McCullough family will take in its legitimate and illegitimate branches.

The Son is a momentous American story, amongst the best from the last decade. It encompasses every American conflict from the Civil War through to Iraq, presenting a cycle of violence that's as old as the fossils and arrowheads buried in the Texan soil. Meyer's novel is certainly a twenty-first-century contender for Great American Novel; like Moby Dick, it ranges from the particular – a whole chapter on the Indians' myriad uses for a buffalo carcass – to the general, with its far-reaching critique of the whole of the American enterprise. Weighty but rewarding, The Son is highly recommended.

If you can handle another big, violent story set on American frontiers, take on Canada by Richard Ford or Caribou Island by David Vann. For a lighter read, try Devil's Cut by J R Ward.

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