The Son. Philipp Meyer. Harper Collins, New York, 2013. Hachette Digital retrieved for Kindle.(F; 5/14)
I have quite scant notes on this book. This could mean it was so enthralling I couldn’t put it down at all. But I have a feeling it’s more like nothing about it really struck me, or I was distracted, sleepy, or not paying attention. The book was nominated for an important prize, but it has to be an American one, since it’s a very American book. I think it and I collaborated to cause it to miss me by a pretty long way. I seemed to find its strength in just one of its many characters, which gave rise to my only emotional response.
The story, set in Texas, is one of those epic rags-to-riches family sagas that spans over a century. Sweeping, your book-jacket screed hack would call it. If there hasn’t already been one, they are only waiting for Oscar season to release the movie. Helpfully there is a family tree (a little bit hard to read in the Kindle version) to which I had reference many times keeping track of the generations among which the narrative hops back and forth.
(I’m not going to bother with plot alerts here because if you haven’t read it I don’t think you should bother…) Eli McCullough is the family progenitor, who witnesses as a teenager the savage rape and slaughter by Indians of his mother and sister, survives captivity by the killers (whereas his less resolute brother is eventually shot and scalped), and lives as a Comanche for about three years. This entails tracking, hunting, warfare, torture, savage-style sex; all the animal behaviour of your normal Indians. Eli scalps and eats raw buffalo liver with the best of them and eventually outlives nearly all his adoptive kin and returns to early-twentieth-century Texas civilization, first as a Texas Ranger and then as a rancher married to the daughter of a local judge. He fathers children and becomes an oil magnate.
He lives to nearly a hundred and accumulates kazillions so has a direct influence on the next couple of generations at least. Along the way, he slaughters a Mexican family who own the adjacent property, shoots anybody who wanders onto his ranch, and does his best to see his all-American values respected among the numerous family members. These include two basic types: Eli-like in instinct and attitude (Eli’s great-granddaughter Jeanne Anne for example, who turns her inbred determination to achieving credibility in a late 20th century oilman’s world), and thin-skinned brooding sensitive types (Eli’s son Peter for example, who leaves his greedy society wife to fall in love with a long-lost granddaughter of the murdered Mexican family), considered effeminate in the hardass world of six-shooters, rustling, and getting rich from drilling for oil, but weighing seriously in their minds whither, whence, and why. And geewhiz right there in one Texas family you got entrepreneurship and humane thoughtfulness. It covers the whole wonderful span of American society, don’t it (never mind here, as in the country itself, there’s a giant void in the middle where humility and principled pragmatism are supposed to be…)?
For me the only character that was alive was Eli. I scramble to disclaim any endorsement of his orientation, but it’s hard to avoid concluding that that’s where Mr. Meyer’s creative heart is, or was when he wrote this book. Eli’s wild Indian adventures prompted the only art gallery experience in the book for me. I for some reason was reminded of myself at about the same age of fifteen, or maybe a few years older, as Eli living his adolescence among the prehistoric Comanches. As I put it in the note I wrote, I somehow appreciated that like wild-indian Eli I still had a real imagination back then.
Aw come on I still have a real imagination! …in a way. I’m writing this, have finished writing another book, believe in insubstantial objects and deal daily with personal internal redecorating. But there is now, in contrast to the way I felt as a teenager and young man, an awful learned burden of exigency that has infected me with what for want of a more detailed analytic description I’ll call…routine.
So even as formulaic and tedious a book as this one can shake you up a bit. I’m reminded of the incomparably more fascinating Book of Memories. Really living in experience as distinct from reviewing it like a movie being watched is what Nadas’s character was talking about. But that transition isn’t easy to make. There’s a mortal risk in direct live-ammunition experience of armed Indians on horseback coming at you. Even when the Indians are imaginary and not really shooting at anybody.
I’ll have to think about that a bit. Maybe that’s what an imagination is for… 5.8/7.3