Wednesday, August 7, 2013
Review: THE SON, by Philipp Meyer
It's hard to know how to start a review for a book like The Son. I met author Philipp Meyer at a HarperCollins dinner thanks to my employer and as interesting a person as he clearly is, and as lauded as his first novel American Rust has been, I was lukewarm about reading The Son and wasn't sure I was going to get around it to. What a mistake that would have been.
The Son is destined to be an American classic. Telling the story of Texas through a family of misfits and outcasts, it's a staggering book. The McCulloughs make their fortune in cattle but quickly turn to oil; patriarch Eli, "the Colonel," is kidnapped by the Comanches as a boy only to return to white society and build a fortress of wealth and power around himself. Eli's son Peter struggles to deal with the brutal massacre of his neighbors, the Garcias, and the takeover by the McCulloughs of the Garcia property. He also struggles with a failing marriage and his own failure in the eyes of his father. Peter's granddaughter Jeannie is a woman in a man's world, the heiress to the oil fortune and the person tasked with moving the family into the modern era and picking up the pieces of a family falling to time and change.
The book is primarily character-driven; it reads like three autobiographies but they vary in tone and style and voice. But don't take that to mean that there is no suspense. There is plenty to drive your fingers forward across the pages, plenty of tension and violence both physical and psychic. Early scenes depicting the violent deaths of Eli's family and passages later describing the aftermath of the Garcia massacre are haunting and vivid. Meyer consistently underplays the emotional consequences of these harrowing events, especially in Eli's passages which read like a simple cold recitation.
That said, Meyer provides an impressive amount of detail regarding Comanche life. Eli is telling his story to a WPA historian, as we learn in Jeannie's sections, and he's an old man as he does it, looking back on events years ago. Nonetheless we can see glimmers of the emotional weight he still bears. Meyer writes Peter's sections in diary form, lending his thoughts a right-now immediacy. I liked his chapters the best, I think for this reason. I also loved the way he grows and gradually rebels against his domineering father.
Jeannie's chapters were also wonderful. Meyer does a great job of getting inside her head; you'd think it was Margaret Atwood writing sometimes. Then there is a fourth character who appears at the end and whose actions form a circle that both closes and continues the McCullough saga.
So the bottom line is, read this book. You can skim over the gory bits if you need to, but don't miss out on The Son. You have time though- this is no fly-by-night pile of hype. It's a book that's going to be with us for a long time to come.
FTC Disclosure: I received an advance copy from HarperCollins.