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The Son

Philipp Meyer's Texas epic tells a story that can stand alongside classics by Larry McMurtry and Cormac McCarthy.

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The Son, by Philipp Meyer, HarperCollins Publishers, 560 pages

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If someone raped and murdered your sister and mom and killed your brother, would you A) run for your life, B) plot revenge, or C) become the killers' adoptive son?

Eli McCullough chooses C in Philipp Meyer's highly acclaimed, brutal frontier novel, The Son. Meyer's first novel “American Rust,” chronicled the slow death of a small Pennsylvania steel town and the evaporating of hopes of its two protagonists. “The Son,” which seems certain to cement Meyer's reputation, takes on a bigger geography, but decline is still the theme. In the process, he's written a Texas epic that can stand alongside classics by Larry McMurtry and Cormac McCarthy.

Kidnapped after a vicious attack on his family, Eli, or Tiehteti as the Comanche rename him, is the consummate survivor. (The 12-year-old doesn't waste much time grieving – his bookish brother was an embarrassment, and his sister never liked him much.) Looking back at his long life from 1936, the centenarian tells a WPA interviewer about outliving both his biological and adoptive families and the frontier he adored.

“The Son” also follows two of Eli's descendants, Peter, who in 1915 is unable to stop the slaughter of his Mexican neighbors; and Jeanne, who at age 86 is lying on the floor of her home, unable to move and unable to remember how she got there. (Alarmingly, she can smell gas, and there seems to be a haze of smoke filling the room.) In the beginning, readers may resent any switch away from Eli, but Meyer jumps masterfully between eras, able to recreate a Comanche raid with as much detail as a boarding school sleepover, and the attendant perils of both.

When Eli was a child, “the country was rich with life the way it is rotten with people today,” he tells WPA worker recording him on tape.

While he longs for the days when the grass was chest-deep, Eli acknowledges he's done his fair share to exploit the area's natural resources – grabbing all the land he can, by fair means or foul, and first covering it with cattle and then oil rigs, a task his great-granddaughter carries on to advance the family fortunes.

“I don't have to tell you what this land used to look like. And you don't have to tell me that I am the one who ruined it,” Eli tells his Peter. “But that is the story of the human race. Soil to sand, fertile to barren, fruit to thorns. It is all we know how to do.”

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