Thursday, June 1, 2017

On Re-Reading THE SON, by Philipp Meyer

I read The Son, Philipp Meyer's should-be-a-classic novel about generations of a Texas cattle and oil family, when it came out in 2013. It was heavily promoted by its publisher HarperCollins and it did not disappoint. It was one of my favorite books of that year and I was very sad to see it lose the Pulitzer for which it was nominated to the more popular The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt's big hit. I don't know how popular The Son was, but it is the kind of book that deserves big prizes and a big audience.

Fast forward a few years, and AMC has made a miniseries out of it, starring Pierce Brosnan as hardscrabble Eli McCullough, the patriarch who goes from Comanche captive to teenage outlaw to founder of a wealthy and powerful family that puts on civilized life like makeup but in whom violence and the desire for freedom simmer nonetheless. I haven't seen the TV show yet; I took on the project of rereading the book because when I watch the show I wanted to have the book fresh in my mind.

Re-reading The Son was most definitely worth effort. Last year I read S.C. Gwynne's masterful Empire of the Summer Moon, about the Comanche tribe and specifically its last leader, Quanah Parker; filled with details of Comanche culture and life, it's a great prequel to The Son and backs up Meyer's accounts of Comanche life. Large sections of The Son are concerned with Eli's life as a captive and later member of the band and I feel better about the accuracy of Meyer's depiction now- and more impressed with Meyer's research and the way he weaves that research into the story.

Meyer presents each of the three main characters- Eli, his son Peter and great-granddaughter Jeannie- through their stories. In other words, we don't watch events unfold so much as hear each person's version of the events of his or her life. Eli is telling his life story to a historian, as an old man, after living through so very much. His weariness, along with his joys and regrets, color his tale. Peter's is presented day by day through his diary, until his diary runs out and we get a coda of his life after. We hear apprehension, horror, fear, love and joy as it happens. And Jeannie's presentation is the trickiest to figure, because we don't know the circumstances of her telling until the very end, but Meyer drops hints that something is not quite right. With her story we see the world changing again as another McCullough misfit tries to find a place for herself. Re-reading helped me put hers together from the beginning because I know how it ends. Then a fourth character enters the stage and the McCullough saga is transformed again.

The TV show has helped drive some sales of the book, at least in the bookstore where I work and mostly because I've tried to be relentless about pushing to get it in the store and out to customers. One thing I love about the current outpouring of adaptations is how it's helping drive sales of amazing books. If you haven't read The Son, whether or not you're watching the show, I urge you to pick up and read this classic American novel not just of the West but of family and the human spirit.

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