17 April 2013

Book Review: The Son by Philipp Meyer

It took me quite a while to work my way through The Son. Partly this was because I picking up and putting down lots of other books between my readings of it, and partly because the book gets off to such a violent and wrenching start that I had to take it in very small doses.

But let me back up. If I had only one sentence to describe this book, I don't think I could improve upon this one-sentence summary from the publisher: a "multigenerational saga of power, blood, and land that follows the rise of one unforgettable Texas family from the Comanche raids of the 1800s to the border raids of the early 1900s to the oil boom of the 20th century."

This book is powerful and fierce and extremely well written.  Cormac McCarthy seems to be the writer to whom most other reviewers are comparing Philipp Meyer, and I get that. I really do.  If you're a writer of literary fiction that features the American west, and if you don't shy away from depicting the violence of that time and place, then comparisons with Cormac McCarthy are inevitable.  I, however, find more of Philip Caputo's mark in Meyer's book than I do McCarthy's. That is, there is a stronger, driving narrative at work here, and Meyer seems far more concerned in moving his story along than he is in dazzling the reader with stunning but circuitous prose.

The Son jumps back and forth in narrative and time frame, and I was thankful more than once to have the McCullough family tree listed in the front of the book. The three primary narrators are, in birth order: Eli McCullough;  Eli's son, Peter; and Eli's great-granddaughter, Jeanne Anne (J.A.). We get points of view ranging from Peter's journal entries to Eli's more straightforward first person narrative to the third person omniscient sections about Jeanne Anne.

Eli is by far the most compelling character, and most complicated to boot--both in terms of his life and my feelings towards him. Terrible things happen to him and to his family, but in turn he exacts some pretty dastardly violence on other characters. Kidnaped by Comanches as a boy and forced to endure the torture and slaughter of his mother, sister, and brother, he eventually becomes part of their band. When a few years later terrible straits necessitate his return to the white man's life, he is utterly self-aware of how ill-suited he is to this world. Adrift and caught between two very different codes of honor, he makes his own rules, and woe betide those who stand in his way, be they friend or foe.  The world, however, soon takes him to be man of action and a man of honor. I'd say they're only half-right.

Peter seems to be the least reliable narrator, but that might be because he is the character I have the least use for and thus I am inclined to dismiss him. His father's life of action completely overshadows and unmakes him. In his diary he pretends disgust regarding the wholesale slaughter of their neighbor and his entire extended family, but not so much that he actually does anything to keep it from happening. Still, the very act of journaling seems to expiate him of his guilt. If he records that he feels such unease, then it must make him a better man than his fellows.

Jeanne Anne, while not likable, still managed to elicit my sympathy as a woman competing in a man's world in Texas in the 1950s and later decades. Dismissed by her father and buoyed through adolescence only with the misty memories of her great-grandfather Eli's fondness for her, she is an interesting mix of traditional and modern. Sharp-minded and sharp-tongued in a time and place where neither was valued in a woman.

These people are largely unlikeable, but their collective story is certainly a compelling one. I was always aware while reading The Son that it was a good book, but it was really only when I came to the end that I realized just how good it was. I didn't love it, but somehow that feels completely irrelevant in the face of what Philipp Meyer has accomplished. He has de-romanticized the West as many people think of it, laying bare the basest of our collective instincts without lionizing any of them. And it's about here that I get into discussions of authorial intent with my coworkers--I feel that Meyer makes it clear for the reader just what a complicated piece of work that Eli and his family are, while at the same time Eli's peers have romanticized and lionized his life and actions. I don't think Eli labors under any illusions of himself, though.

Some passages I noted:

Jeanne Anne: "People made no sense to her. Men, with whom she had everything in common, did not want her around. Women, with whom she had nothing in common, smiled too much, laughed too loud, and mostly reminded her of small dogs, their lives lost in interior decorating, other people's outfits, and proper seating at parties. There had never been a place for a person like her (7)."

Jeanne Anne again: "She wondered how people would remember her. She had not made enough to spread her wealth around like Carnegie, to erase any sins attached to her name...The liberals would cheer her death. They would light marijuana cigarettes and drive to their sushi restaurants and eat food that had traveled eight thousand miles. They would spend all of supper complaining about people like her, and when they got home their houses would be cold and they'd press a button on a wall to get warm. They hated big oil, they hated Texas. But life as they knew it did not exist without Texas (85)."

Peter: "It occurred to me, as I watched the oil flow down the hill, that soon there will be nothing left to subdue the pride of men. There is nothing we will not have mastered, except, of course, ourselves (400)."

Eli: "You could butcher and pillage but as long as you did it to protect people you loved, it never mattered. You did not see the Comanches with the long stare--there was nothing they did that was not to protect their friends or their families, or their band. The war sickness was a disease of the white man, who fought in armies far from his home, for men he didn't know, and there is a myth about the West, that it was founded and ruled by loners, while the truth is just the opposite; the loner is a mental weakling and was seen as such, and treated with suspicion (435)."

I would not say that this book, as a rule, is humorous, but every once in a while it slyly sneaks in there, such as in these passages:

Eli: "Over many of the wagon trains heading west, away from the war, the Confederate flag could be seen flying proudly. They were in favor of the war as long as they did not have to fight it themselves, and I have always thought that is why California turned out the way it did (445)."

Jeanne Anne, on older men with younger lovers: "She wondered what it would be like to look into the mirror and see yourself, white haired, slough skinned, your wilting everything and uncountable skin tags; right next to some perfect young specimen of the human race. On the other hand, they were men. They likely thought their fiber drinks and sagging bellies were just as fine as cream gravy (545)."

This is one of those commitment books--if you decide to read it, it's going to take a goodly amount commitment on your part. But I think that if you're the kind of reader who likes to sink your teeth into an old-fashioned, epic-length book chock full of complications and contradictions and darn good writing, this is exactly the kind of book that you'll admire.

NB: I read an advance reader's edition of this book provided by my sales rep at my request. Ecco will publish the book in June 2013.


  1. That's an astute comment about Caputo vs McCarthy and I totally agree. I find it's hard to say I "like" this book but it's quite powerful and definitely worth reading. It's one of the strongest books I've read so far this year.

    1. Yes, I know just what you mean. I admire and respect this book tremendously. And it's so strong. But I didn't love it--I have to have an emotional connection with the story and/or characters to love a book.

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  3. The passages you picked out definitely piqued my interest; a little concerned about the California reference though, lol.

  4. I've just started hearing a bit of buzz about this book and I was curious. I'm glad you've reviewed it! Now I'm doubly curious and I'll be hoping to get to this one :)

  5. This is decidedly not a book I would pick up from just looking at it. But I have to say that your praise is at least making me consider it!

  6. I loved this book! This is a great review of it, and you chose passages that I had marked in the book, too. I thought Jeanne Anne was a simply fantastic character, so insightfully written - I think Meyer writes good female characters in general.

    1. Glad you liked this one, too. Philip Meyer is a writer who keeps getting better & better.


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