THE SON by Philipp Meyer – Review

In the wake of the critical and popular success of his first novel, American Rust (see my review), Meyer won a Guggenheim Fellowship.  During the period covered by this award, he completed The Son, which was published earlier this year by Ecco Press (a HarperCollins imprint).  It received immediate, almost hyperbolic praise.  Ron Charles of the Washington Post declared that this work has “a viable claim to be a Great American Novel” in the tradition of John Dos Passos and Frank Norris.  In the New York Times Book Review, Will Blythe classed The Son among “the greatest of historical novels” and compared it favorably with Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian.  Alexandra Alter of the Wall Street Journal asked, “Is Philipp Meyer the Next William Faulkner?”

In a New Yorker interview, Meyer described The Son (then a work-in-progress) as a “novel about the rise of a Texas ranching-and-oil dynasty across the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries. ‘American Rust’ was about that part of America whose time has passed, the part that’s on the decline. This new novel will be about the part of America that is still on the rise.”  To illustrate this ascendancy, Meyer uses multiple, overlapping points-of-view to tell the story of the rise of the McCullough family.  The length and breadth of this narrative resulted in a text of almost six hundred pages of text, but its lively pace, well-drawn characters, and vivid, precise imagery make it a much shorter read than one would expect.

Since The Son covers several generations of family (and, by default, Texas) history, from the mid-1800s to the present, the novel could have overwhelmed readers with a surfeit of characters and events.  Indeed, Meyer provides a genealogy of the McCullough family for the reader’s reference.  Although this family tree is helpful for recalling relationships between major and minor characters, it is not essential to the organization of the plot, which is firmly anchored by its main character, Eli McCullough.

Eli is “the son” in many senses of the word, including a Biblical one which befits the story of Texas as told by Meyer.  In the world of The Son, Eli is the proverbial stone that the Anglo builders of the Texas Republic rejected.  He is given up for lost by his pioneer father and rejected and marginalized by the early power-brokers of Texas.  The latter would come to realize later, to their chagrin, that he had become the new state’s chief cornerstone.

The scriptural metaphor applies only in a loose, secular sense, as Eli believes in no one but himself.  Nevertheless, the formation of his character takes place largely through trials in a wilderness.  He grows from a boy to a man in the context of Comanche culture, first as a captive and later as a son, brother, lover, and leader.  Despite witnessing the rape-murders of his mother and sister and the death of his brother during the raid on his home that led to his captivity, he comes to embrace the Comanche concept of manhood.  This identification (symbolized by his Comanche name, “Tiehteti-taibo,” which ironically means “pathetic little white man”) is a major reason that Eli eventually proves to be unstoppable after his return to the Anglo settlers’ world.   Another motivation is the decimation of the Comanches by the armies of the white invaders.

Eli passes his worldview to his descendants, although like many heritable traits, it occasionally skips a generation.  His great-granddaughter, Jeanne Anne, receives the inheritance to its fullest, ironically recapitulating in her life many of Eli’s experiences.  This is ironic because she out-Elis Eli as a woman in a world very much dominated by men.  By contrast, Peter (one of Eli’s sons) is the only McCullough who objects to Eli’s ruthless drive for land, money, power, and influence.  Peter’s opposition becomes active after Eli robs and murders the family of a prominent Tejano rancher whose property and ambitions were too close to his own.  Although Peter’s resistance is rather ineffectual, he is nevertheless able to atone partially for his family’s sins and to achieve his own version of happiness.  In the end, it is this act of atonement that leads to the destruction of the family dynasty.

Much has been made of the sociohistorical implications of The Son.  For example, Charles sees the novel as a “tale of the United States written in blood across the Texas plains, a 200-year cycle of theft and murder that shreds any golden myths of civilized development.”  Nevertheless, there are no saints in the world of this novel; Meyer evenhandedly distributes praise and blame to all parties.  Hence, Charles expresses surprise at the book’s depiction of Native Americans:  “For those of us old enough to have watched the portrayal of Indians shift from blood-curdling villains to romanticized victims, ‘The Son’ arrives like a flaming arrow in the bleeding liberal heart of political correctness.”

However, for Meyer, writing fiction is about honesty, not political correctness.  In a 2009 interview in The Rumpus, Meyer noted that one of his major guiding principles can be summed up in the phrase, “Don’t be a coward”:

As this relates to art, I think a lot of this comes down to learning to trust your own instincts. Are you creating something that is true to your vision of humanity and the world, or are you creating something that is true to someone else’s vision? No matter how other people respond to your work, that’s what allows you to sleep at night.