Philipp Meyer, The Son

September 1, 2013 § Leave a comment

It was prophesied I would live to see one hundred and having achieved that age I see no reason to doubt it.  I am not dying a Christian though my scalp is intact and if there is an eternal hunting ground, that is where I am headed.  That or the river Styx.  My opinion at this moment is my life has been far too short:  the good I could do if given another year on my feet.  Instead I am strapped to this bed, fouling myself like an infant.

Should the Creator see fit to give me strength I will make my way to the waters that run through the pasture.  The Nueces River at its eastern bend.  I have always preferred the Devil’s.  In my dreams I have reached it three times and it is known that Alexander the Great, on his last night of mortal life, crawled from his palace and tried to slip into the Euphrates, knowing that if his body disappeared, his people would assume he had ascended to heaven as a god.  His wife stopped him at the water’s edge.  She dragged him home to die mortal.  And people ask me why I did not remarry. (p. 1)

Today, it is almost quaint to say that a writer has attempted to write “the great American novel.”  A glance at the bestseller lists and heavily-promoted books reveal book after book devoted to the picayune features of our lives:  reflections on mortality, sexual desire, the seeking of something that is beyond our grasp or our ken.  Writing something of a “national” or even regional nature is to try to write something that fell out of vogue decades ago.  Yet occasionally there appear novels so powerful in their characterizations and their portrayal of themes that simultaneously are universal and seemingly unique to a nation that grandiose terms such as “great American novel” do not feel out of place when describing the narrative at hand.  Philipp Meyer’s second novel, The Son, just very well may be one of those rare contemporary novels that manage to capture an essence larger than that of a singular person or group of persons.

The Son covers a span of nearly two hundred years, from the founding of the Republic of Texas in 1836 to the present day.  Six generations of a fictitious Texan aristocratic family, the McCulloughs, are seen through the eyes of three key members:  Eli, the titular son (and the first male child born after the establishment of the Republic of Texas) whose story encompasses the mid-to-late 19th century and beyond; his disgraced son, Peter, whose diaries from the 1910s narrate a tumultuous time along the US-Mexico border; and Peter’s grand-daughter, Jeanne Anne, who has established a different sort of empire from that of her great-grandfather.  Each of these narrators captures within their accounts segments of a grand sweeping narrative that encompasses decadence and renewal, of empires rising and falling.

Of the three narrators, Eli’s most immediately grabs the reader’s attention.  Readers familiar with Western narratives (especially Cormac McCarthy’s The Border trilogy) will find certain elements of Eli’s narrative familiar to them.  Captured as a teen by a marauding Comanche band, Eli’s description of his three years with the Comanches is eloquent in its contrasts between nature and civilization, between the values of community and solitude, between a code of honor and a code of commerce.  Here is an example of the cultural clash that the teenaged Eli (or Tiehteti, as he was known among the Comanches) observed:

To white ears, the names of the Indians lacked any sort of dignity or sense and made it that much harder to figure why they ought to be treated as humans rather than prairie niggers.  The reason for this was that the Comanches considered the use of a dead person’s name taboo.  Unlike the whites, billions of whom shared the same handful of names, all interchangeable in the end, a Comanche name lived and died with a single person.

A child was not named by his parents, but by a relative or a famous person in the tribe; maybe for a deed that person had done, maybe for an object that struck their fancy.  If a particular name was not serving well, the child might be renamed; for instance, Charges the Enemy had been a small and timid child and it was thought that giving him a braver name might cure these problems, which it had.  Some people in the tribe were renamed a second or third time in adult life, if their friends and family found something more interesting to call them.  The owner of the German captive Yellow Hair, whose birth name was Six Deer, was renamed Lazy Feet as a teenager, which stuck to him the rest of his life.  Toshaway’s son Fat Wolf was so named because his namer has seen a very fat wolf the previous night, and being an interesting sight and not a bad name it had stuck. (p. 232)

 Meyer fills his narrative with these asides, virtually all of which serve to reinforce the themes of cultural clashes and decadence/renewal.  There is a subtle economy of images here, as Meyer uses these little details to compress his narrative, allowing him to skip months, if not years, in the narration of Eli and his progeny’s lives by relating important events and self-discoveries in short, incisive passages.  Here the Comanches are seen less as an “other” and more as people who follow an alternate, perhaps more honest path than those of the white settlers.  This contrast of beliefs appears again and again in the three narratives, with subtle changes occurring within each of the three that lead to surprising twists near the end of the novel.

Meyer’s characters frequently face moral dilemmas, such as how to make one’s way in a hostile world without falling too much into the trap of operating purely on expediency.  Eli’s decisions, hinted at in the narratives of Peter and Jeanne Anne, are often brutal, at least for those of us who have grown up in more “civilized” times.  Yet as these events unfold, the consequences are shown in no lesser detail.  As Eli bitterly notes in the first chapter, his disgraced son Peter is “[s]eed of my destruction.”  How this comes to be, how Peter’s actions contain the seeds for the destruction of Eli’s land/cattle (and later oil) empire of 250,000 acres, occupies most of this 561 page novel.  It is a testimony to Meyer’s skills as a writer that a novel of this size does not feel bloated but instead seems to be brimming with energy.

Beyond the three McCullough narrators (to describe in detail Peter or Jeanne Anne’s subplots would give away too much), Meyer adroitly connects their decisions and actions to greater, more American issues.  Although Eli is the titular “son” of this novel, it could be argued with some supporting evidence that the “son” could also be expanded to include those “sons” of the pioneers, those children who took the wilderness that their forebears knew and who corralled it, tamed it, and broke it in the profane name of “prosperity.”  This certainly would be a view that Eli himself would have supported and it most definitely would be a concern of his son, who walked away from the blood-soaked empire bequeathed to him.  This is perhaps as “American” of a theme, the subjugation of nature and the twisting of human ideals to support avarice, as any of the previous four centuries.  That Meyer is able to argue this within a clear, flowing novel is a testimony to his strength as a writer.  The characterizations are never shallow, even when some (such as Peter) seem to be overwhelmed at times by the beguiling power of Eli.  The Son may perhaps be one of those rare novels that will capture readers’ attentions decades removed from its initial publication.  It certainly has the feel of a novel that will be lauded for years to come (and rightfully so) for its treatment of theme and character.  Very highly recommended.

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