Author: Philipp Meyer
Date of Publication: May 28, 2013
This book has received nothing but glowing reviews. Author Kate Atkinson (Life After Life, Case Histories) went so far as to say “ stands fair to hold its own in the canon of Great American Novels. A book that for once really does deserve to be called a masterpiece.” This is the author’s second novel. His first, American Rust, won the 2009 “Los Angeles Times” Book Award and was one of “The Washington Post’s” top ten books of that year. This fellow can write The Son is a challenging read at 576 pages, but well worth the effort.
This novel is a multi-generational saga of the McCullough family. It begins with 13 year old Eli McCullough being taken captive by a Comanche raiding party. He survives only after witnessing the brutal destruction of his family. Eli eventually is embraced by the Indians and he learns their language, culture and skills. The descriptions of the Comanche ways of life are riveting as much as they are eye-opening. Eli returns to “civilization” such as it was and becomes a Texas Ranger, a Confederate Colonel and eventually a land and cattle baron. His legend both fuels and haunts subsequent generations. The story unfolds over the decades through Eli’s son and great-granddaughter. The McCullough family’s story is intertwined with the economics, politics and history of Texas.
The story is not told in chronological order. Chapters of each of the main characters are interspersed with each other. At first I found this distracting and somewhat confusing. Once I was able to keep all of the characters straight it made each of the stories a bit more compelling. Each story enlightens the others, subtly revealing motivations, character flaws and cause and effect relationships. The author’s ability to create unforgettable characters is unparalleled. His craft in weaving these characters into historical context is brilliant. The author not only is able to examine history, but also the sociology of the region. He manages to even make Texas politics somewhat understandable. In one sequence Jeannie McCullough, the heiress to the family oil and cattle fortune meets Lyndon Johnson, then a young politician running for the State Senate for the first time. Jeannie gets a quick lesson in the cost of political favor.
The Son is more than a fantastic historical novel. It has tremendous characters, pulse pounding action sequences, plots which mesmerize and prose which absolutely amazes. This book, however, is first and foremost about power and, most importantly, land. The author reminds us that the land was stolen from the Indians who had, in fact, stolen it from other Indians. Spaniards came and stole it again and finally the whites came and stole it yet again. The topography of the land and harsh extremes of climate shape all of these peoples in one way or another. The McCullough familial drive for more cattle, more oil, more money and more land becomes a character of its own. The story of the McCulloughs is really the story of the trap of the American dream: that more is better, that the kinds of things that wealth can buy always translate into real-world advantages. For the McCulloughs that doesn’t exactly work out. There is always a price to be paid.
A bit of warning: The Son is not for the squeamish. The violence in this book is vivid and intricately described. The rape and murder of Eli’s mother and siblings by the Comanche will at the very least make you uncomfortable. There are other sequences where the violence also comes fast and furiously. It is a necessary part of this brutal story but one which may be shocking to many readers. This is by far the best book I’ve read all year and maybe one of the best ever. Will it become part of the great American Canon of literature? Only time will tell.