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Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The Son: Don't Mess With Texas

You hear multi-generational epic set in Texas, and your first thought is, "I liked this better the first time, when it was titled Texas." But Philipp Meyer's novel The Son is a masterful re-imagining of (update to?) the storytelling technique James Michener made famous: the family saga that tells the story of a place as much as it does that family. But in addition to Michener, The Son also seems to be heavily influenced by a much more literary figure, one Cormac McCarthy. That's because The Son is a both story of a people and its place (complete with oil, cattle, Comanches, and Mexicans), and also a literary historical fiction with all the requisite McCarthy violence, war, and everything else that makes Texas Texas.

Clocking in at just under 600 pages, you're going to want to clear your schedule for this one. It's the story of three characters; members of different generations of the same Texas family. Eli McCullough is the family patriarch — and his story begins in the 1850s when his family is murdered by a Comanche raiding party, and he's adopted by the tribe as a slave. He spends his formative teenage years with the tribe, learning their ways — an experience that informs the rest of his life, even after he rejoins Texas society, fights in the Civil War, and starts the McCullough family ranch.

Eli's son Peter's story begins in 1915, when some ne'er-do-well family members of the McCullough's long-time Mexican neighbors some cattle. So, much to Peter's chagrin, a hunting party is formed, which takes the law into its hands, killing the entire Mexican family. Peter, who admits (his story is told as a diary) that "There are those born to hunt and those born to be hunted. I have always known I was the latter."

But none of these characters is exactly representative of a typical Texan. They're all uncomfortable in their own times, and all seem to be trying to break the mold of what is expected of them. Eli is supposed to settle down and be a family man, but the wild streak he learned during his time as a Comanche won't allow him to do that. Peter is supposed to be the ruthless ranch owner, but he has the gall, instead, to be respectful of his neighbors rather than to constantly war with them. Naturally, this causes no small amount of conflict with his father. Peter explains: "There is nothing wrong with my father: he is the natural. The problem is those like myself, who hoped we might rise from our instinctive state. Who hoped to go beyond our nature." Peter hopes to be the better man and rise above the violence and war that is the order of the day.

And Jeannie, whose story traverses the last half of the 20th century, is supposed to be a demure Southern woman, but she actually takes the family ranch from post-war near-failure to a wildly successful oil empire, despite her supposed "limitations" as a woman in a man's world.

One of Meyer's great successes in this novel is that there are no "good guys" and "bad guys." Everything is relative based on whose story is being told at the time. And that's true as much for each character as it is for the three main groups — Mexicans, Indians, and whites — that shape the novel. When Eli is captured, his Comanche owner tells him:
"I am not even slightly crazy. The white people are crazy. They all want to be rich, same as we do, but they do not admit to themselves that you only get rich by taking things from other people. They think that if you do not see the people you are stealing from, or if you do not know them, or if they do not look like you, it is not really stealing."
But the Comanches and Mexicans are far from blameless. A Mexican ranch hand reflects on his situation, near the end of the novel:
"He was no better. His people had stolen land from the Indians, and yet he did not think of that even for an instant — he thought only of the Texans who had stolen it from his people. And the Indians from whom his people had stolen the land had themselves stolen it from other Indians."
Clearly, this isn't a novel that will appeal to all readers, but I loved it. I first read Michener's Texas about 10 years ago, and I remember struggling to get through all 1,200 pages. This is a worthy successor (companion?) to that novel — and much better in many ways, in my opinion. So, if you're in to the historical epic, this is definitely a novel worth checking out. 

9 comments:

  1. I'm about half way through this and it reminds me of a McCarthy lite novel. All the history, and story but lighter on the violence and easier to read. I'm also loving it so far, but I'm a sucker for the multi generational family epic.
    I see your reading Night Film now, I just finished it and really liked it. The articles, photos and other alternate bits of information really add to the book. It's a crazy but fun ride.

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    1. "McCarthy Lite" is a good way to put it - you're right, it is a little lighter on the violence. But the beginning....wow! I started it one night right before bed, and had some very unsettling dreams.

      Yeah, I'm loving NIGHT FILM - all the "extras" definitely immerse you more fully in the story.

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  2. Greg I also read and reviewed this novel. I liked it very much, I think it gave a true picture of Texas. I had two impressions after I finished it - If you have any doubt were the gun culture in this country comes from just read this story. Every dispute was settled with guns. Second, I found it profoundly depressing the way the conquerors (Here mostly white Americans) treat those who were conquered. I know these actions aren't confined to whites settling the American West but just the same it is depressing! I needed to read something more escapist after this one.
    My review here -http://tinyurl.com/lxyb29s

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    1. Re the guns and violence, I think that's why Peter was such a fascinating character - he wanted nothing to do with that culture, and it's partly what ostracized him. Your second point is well-taken - and definitely part of Meyer's theme for the novel. Whether Mexican, Texan or Comanche, the conqueror always stole the dignity of those who he conquered. And that's one of the darker sides of human nature.

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  3. Every time I read a review or quote from The Son I'm tempted to pick up my copy and start it again. This one just really struck me for many of the reasons you mention and I have a sense it's going to be a book that I come back to several times.

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    1. I think you're right - it might be destined to be a classic.

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  4. I was just going to say Shannon read this and loved it - along with everyone else! The writing in this one seems phenomenal but I'm wary of the "violent Texan saga" aspect. I'm not sure if the setting and historical moment will appeal to me - but it seems like Meyer does paint some compelling character studies. I may just read it for the multi-generational family epic.

    Have you read American Rust too? Rebecca at Book Riot recommends it.

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    1. I have read American Rust, and strangely enough, didn't much care for it. It's exactly the sort of book I would normally love, but I just didn't get along with it for some reason.

      The characters in The Son, I think, definitely trump the aversion to violence. They're such fascinating people!

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  5. I loved The Son, but American Rust is cheated by reviews. Meyer is definitely a talented writer. However, die hard Cormac fans would probably be offended by the comparisons.

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