The Son: A Novel by Philipp Meyer (New York: Harper Collins, 2013. 561 pp)

Philipp Meyer is the author of the critically lauded novel American Rust, winner of the 2009 Los Angeles Times Book Prize. It was an Economist Book of the Year, a Washington Post top ten book of the year, and a New York Times Notable Book. He is a graduate of Cornell University and has an MFA from the University of Texas at Austin, where he was a James A. Michener Fellow. A native of Baltimore, he now lives mostly in Texas.

The Wild West

I can’t say I would agree with the Wild West. I don’t really like camping, though I’ll do it. I’ve shot a gun (and was strangely accurate with it, I might add), and don’t frankly care to do so again. I’ve been to the desert, but find it too hot. I’ll enjoy an occasional drink, but won’t overdo it. Why then, does the Western genre appeal to me so? I love Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, and All the Pretty Horses probably because they deal with the great nation of Texas and all the unique history therein.

America’s 28th state has been written about by so many. Its sheer size intimidates, but there’s something roughly hewn about that state that appeals and intrigues. In Philip Meyer’s second novel, The Son, he explores Texas in a way that measures up to literary greats like McCarthy. The Son chronicles Texan history from 1849 to the present day in a raw and epic way. The Son is three narratives in the third person, telling the story of the fictional McCullough family.

The First Son

The first son of the Republic of Texas is Eli McCullough. Born in Bastrop in Indian country, he grows up on the frontier. Though the first son of the new state, he stands in the shadow of his older brother who reads often and has an unnatural longing for his sister. That however, doesn’t last too long.

“My mother had not made a sound since I woke up, even with the arrows sticking out of her, but she began to scream and cry when they scalped her, and I saw another Indian walking up to her with my father’s broadax” (27).

The Comanche Indians descend on his house when Eli is thirteen years of age, but he kills many of them defending his family during the raid. The Indian tribe kidnaps young Eli after killing his entire family. During his captivity, he learns how to be a ruthless man, a skill that later comes in handy. Meyer here chronicles scalping, illicit sex, and other grotesque scenes. He also goes into depth explaining the anatomy of the buffalo (something that reminded me of Moby-Dick, which I’m currently reading). After being kidnapped, he becomes the adopted son of the chief of the tribe. When sickness all but wipes the tribe out, the Comanches eventually return Eli to the world of the white man where he becomes an affluent cattle ranger on the road towards great political power.

The Son

The rest of the story unfolds across generations and alternating stories of Eli and his progeny. We meet Peter, who despises everything his father represents; and Jeannie, Eli’s great-great-granddaughter who inherits the family fortune.

Peter is rather cultured and rather morose, he tries not to adhere to the family ways. He remembers the scene in 1917, where the family massacred their nearest neighbors, the Mexican Garcias, in order to acquire their land. But, though he despises his father, Peter realizes that the sins of the father are often revisited upon the son, perhaps the reason for the novel’s title. Most of all, he doesn’t want to become an animal like his father.

“To be a simple animal like my father, untroubled by consciousness, or conscience. To sleep soundly, at ease with your certainties, men as expendable as beef” (161).

The attack on the Mexian settlers destroys Peter psychologically, and his family begins to blame him as the cattle business begins to fail.

The Great-Great-Granddaughter

Peter’s granddaughter, Jeanne Anne, has found a way back to the family power, as she is an oil baron. We, the reader, hear her story through a bit of a confused haze. We learn that she’s trapped in a burning house as she recalls an entire lifetime of being underestimated and unappreciated, even though somewhat ruthless like her great-great-grandfather.

“She wondered how people would remember her. She had not made enough to spread her wealth around like Carnegie, to erase any sins that had attached to her name, she had failed, she had not reached the golden bough. The liberals would cheer her to death. They would light marijuana cigarettes and drive to their sushi restaurants and eat fresh 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. The whole time complaining about big oil” (82).

Jeanne Anne sums up the sentiment of the novel the best, echoing the sentiment of redemption, something rather hard to find in her family.

“She had lost half her family before their time. The land was hard on its sons, harder yet on the sons of other lands” (84).

Texan-Sized Tale

Akin to both Melville and McCarthy simultaneously, the mythological story of the men and women of Texas is one painted in blood and gore. I heard rumor that Philipp Meyer changed The Son innumerable times, even changing several hundred pages after the advanced reader’s copies came out. I enjoyed how Meyer took on this Texan-sized tale with pinpoint accuracy, making sure every detail was something worth writing. The Son is about Texas, to be certain, but even more it is about redemption, sin, and folly. These three themes are surely worth writing about.

Verdict: 4.5 out of 5

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