I don’t remember buying The Son. It doesn’t seem like the sort of thing I’d do at all: buy a book about Cowboys? Indians? Texas? The frontier? Oil? Nay to all, thank you.
But talk to me about legacy – family – the impact of terrible acts through generations – damage – love – identity. THAT I can get on board with. Luckily, these all turn out to be major themes of Philipp Meyer’s The Son. This was a relief, as I started it with the reluctance of someone who has nothing else to hand and is TOO DAMN TIRED to find anything else.
The Son tells of four generations of the McCullough family (through the eyes of three of them: the viewpoint of one generation is missed out) from roughly the 1850s, 1910s and 1950s. Over this period, the West changed from open prairie land, ruled by Indians with white man as the minority in danger of the more powerful Indians, through agricultural cow-rearing with vivid racial tensions, through to a white-run, land-sacked, oil driller land. I know, I know: doesn’t sound that appealing a read. But Meyer takes us through these changes slowly, intimately. Texas is such a masculine state and it’s brought to life red in tooth and claw, but this isn’t a clumsy, aggressive book. It’s clever, it’s detailed, and it appreciates the rawness of man and nature.
The first generation – Eli McCullough – is surely the most arresting and successful. A boy who is kidnapped by the Indians and learns their ways, this storyline achieves what Mantel does in Wolf Hall: a sensory, immersive, complicated view of a world through the eyes of an unemotive, hardened man. This is “Injuns” as I hadn’t seen them depicted before: brutal, loving, tenacious, wistful. A double-sided picture which is never simplified for the reader.
The third generation (and second voice) is Peter McCullough, a sensitive man out of step with his family and times, tortured by a brutality witnessed in his youth. For much of the book Peter’s voice is rather annoying. The heart to Eli’s fist, he gives a nuanced picture of race and the violence of the culture – but he’s also pretty whiny and weak. Ultimately this storyline does succed in giving some heart and redemption to a fairly bleak tale, but for much of the book you’re keen to finish his chapters and get back to the good stuff.
The final generation, Jeannie McCollough, was for me the least successful. Perhaps because it’s the most depressing. A lonely older woman, born into a man’s world and facing its prejudice and limitations, isolated at the end of her life with only immense wealth to show for it. It’s good to have a woman’s voice in this male-heavy book (it’s called “The Son” for a reason), and it works for her to be a woman for whom family, children, and the whole package of ‘womanhood’ just doesn’t work. The result of three generations of Sons, it’s no surprise that these “softer” values have suffered in the family’s pursuit of sucess.
I’ll say it again: Texan oil-drilling and cowboys are NOT my kind of thing. So it’s sort of amazing that Meyer makes this book as appealing to me as he does. It took me some time to get into it, but from about a quarter of the way through (it’s quite long) I was turning the pages gamely, and even keenly at times. Not a rush-out-and-buy, but a respectful nod of the head to a writer who both depicts and goes beyond the cliché. Howdy.