Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Mini-book review: "The Son" by Philipp Meyer

I recently finished Philipp Meyer's latest novel--a literary Western entitled The Son.. Below is the Amazon.com promotional blurb/review, which includes a reasonable synopsis:

“In 1859, Eli McCullough, the 13-year-old son of Texas pioneers, is captured in a brutal Comanche raid on his family's homestead. First taken as a slave along with his less intrepid brother, Eli assimilates himself into Comanche culture, learning their arts of riding, hunting, and total warfare.  
When the tribe succumbs to waves of disease and settlers, Eli's only option is a return to Texas, where his acquired thirsts for freedom and self-determination set a course for his family's inexorable rise through the industries of cattle and oil. 
The Son is Philipp Meyer's epic tale of more than 150 years of money, family, and power, told through the memories of three unforgettable narrators: Eli, now 100 and known simply as "the Colonel"; Eli's son Peter, called "the great disappointment" for his failure to meet the family’s vision of itself; and Eli's great-granddaughter Jeanne Anne, who struggles to maintain the McCullough empire in the economic frontier of modern Texas. 
The book is long but never dull—Meyer's gift (and obsession) for historical detail and vernacular is revelatory, and the distinct voices of his fully fleshed-and-blooded characters drive the story. 
And let there be blood: some readers will flinch at Meyer's blunt (and often mesmerizing) portrayal of violence in mid-19th century Texas, but it’s never gratuitous. His first novel, 2009's American Rust, drew praise for its stark and original characterization of post-industrial America, but Meyer has outdone himself with The Son, as ambitious a book as any you’ll read this year--or any year. Early reviewers call it a masterpiece, and while it's easy to dismiss so many raves as hyperbole, The Son is an extraordinary achievement. - John Foro”
My review:

I basically agree with the sentiments of the Amazon.com reviewer. The Son is a fine novel, a multilayered work that far surpasses Meyer's earlier American Rust both in scope and quality.  

It has been said that all books are influenced by other books, and I believe that was the case here, at least to a certain degree. While reading The Son, I definitely detected shades of Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, and Larry McMurtry's main literary Westerns, Lonesome Dove and Comanche Moon

That having been said, The Son avoids the mind-numbing perversity and excessive violence of Blood Meridian. Philipp Meyer has written a novel for a wide audience. (The same couldn't be said of Cormac McCarthy's efforts in Blood Meridian.)

I'd have to give The Son a solid 4 out of 5 stars. Below are some of the book's strong points and weak points, as I saw them.

Strong points:

Historical accuracy: Meyer did an excellent job of learning about Comanche culture and integrating that into the story. 

As chance would have it, I recently finished reading a nonfiction book about the Comanches, Empire of the Summer Moon, by S.C. Gwynne. 

Based on my reading of Gwynne's book, Meyer seems to have nailed all of the important details about the Comanches in The Son. This gives The Son a level of authenticity that makes the story even more believable.

A fast-moving plot: For a fairly long book, this is a tale that doesn't slow down in too many places (more on this shortly). I read The Son while I was in the middle of reading several other books. I found myself setting those books aside so I could finish The Son.

There is lots of conflict--both internal and external. That almost always makes for a fast-moving story.

Complex, dynamic characters: Eli McCullough, his son Peter, and his great-granddaughter Jeanne Anne are real people with humanlike mixtures of flaws and virtue. The three main characters are very different types; and obviously one of them is a woman. 

Weak points: 

Somewhat bleak: The larger theme of this book is the taming of the American West. Philipp Meyer seems to be attempting to say something profound about this part of American history, and I'm not sure that he has entirely succeeded. 

While Eli McCullough has built an empire (first of cattle, later of oil) out of the wilderness, neither he nor his descendants seem to take much pleasure from it. 

The Son is a novel that Ayn Rand (author of Atlas Shrugged) would hate. It depicts the march of American capitalism as almost completely negative. While Meyer is honest about the brutality of Comanche culture, one gets the feeling that he romanticizes it somewhat--perhaps more than an objective student of history should. 

One of the elements that makes a great novel is redemption. I'm not sure that I found anything genuinely redemptive in the journeys of Eli, Peter, or Jeanne Anne. The book ends on a very pessimistic note.

Nonlinear narrative: The Son alternates between the stories of Eli, Peter, and Jeanne Anne, which are of course interconnected. The book also jumps around temporally. One chapter is set in the 1850s, the next in the 1930s, etc.

From a technical perspective, Meyer smoothly manages the transitions between the separate story lines; and a reasonably attentive reader should not be confused by the overall flow of the narrative. 

However, the story line of Eli is far more interesting than the story lines of either Peter or Jeanne Anne. (Several Amazon.com reader-reviewers also made this observation.) While I wouldn't necessarily describe the Peter and Jeanne Anne chapters as "boring", I did find myself saying, "Great--another Eli chapter!" when I came to those.

The Eli chapters were reliably filled with gunfights and the always interesting forays into Comanche culture. The Peter and Jeanne Anne chapters sometimes dwelled a bit too much on comparatively mundane romantic affairs, etc.

*       *       *
This isn't a perfect book; but it is still a very good one. I especially recommend it to anyone who enjoyed Larry McMurty's novels, or the family sagas of either James Michener or John Jakes.

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