Thursday, 4 September 2014

The Son, by Philipp Meyer

The Son is an epic, sprawling tale of violence, loss and survival across five generations of the McCullough family- Texas' oldest and richest household. Over the generations they tame the Western frontier, fight the Civil War, make their fortune in cattle then oilfields and fight it out against the Mexicans and the Native Americans. Thrown in for good measure are themes of revenge, loyalty, the idea of the family versus the wilderness and a whole bunch of easy money.

Jumping backwards and forwards through time and switching between the accounts of three generations of narrators, the family history of the McCulloughs emerges from the sand, oil and blood of the Texan frontier in the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries. The stories are told by Eli McCullough, prophetically the first male child born in the Republic of Texas, aka the Colonel aka Tiehteti-tihabo, his son Peter and his great-grand-daughter Jeannie McCullough. Each has something to prove, their own empire to hold onto and their own reputation to build or maintain, and each has struggled with immense losses and sacrifice through the years.

We start off with the Colonel, the lived-to-be-90-odd patriarch of the family preserving his memoirs into a recording device. He talks of his youth on the frontier with his family and then the Indian raid that left him a white captive and the rest of his family butchered. In spite of the surly, stubborn and prejudiced old man he becomes, I really liked the character of Eli. Adapting quickly to life as Comanche captive and then earning his status as tribesman, he's resourceful and independent and I enjoyed the combination of his nihilistic bravery and his sensitive sustainable living ideas. He goes through such changes too as he grows up and re-enters society, but no institution really ever has his loyalty like the Comanches did. Not even his blood family.

His son, Peter tells his story through diaries. Cultured and filled with lingering melancholy, he writes of his feelings of displacement in the vastness of Texas, the doubts that he could ever continue his father's empire, his unacceptable romantic life. He lacks the bloodthirsty ruthlessness of his father and brothers and is haunted by the 1917 massacre of their next door neighbours the Garcias, butchered by his family and a band of vengeance bent vigilantes. Though I found Peter pathetically endearing, he was obviously well due a slap and a bit of good luck.

Jeannie provides the lone female voice in the narrative, frail and elderly as she narrates, she remembers her youth spent branding and roping cattle at the age of 10 with her revered, old-school great grandfather. She's been running the family's business and protecting its interests for decades, struggling for acceptance as the solo female player in man's game. Jeannie's probably lived through the biggest changes in her lifetime, bringing us up to the struggles of being a rich oil baron and widow in the modern age. All the sacrifice and sweat amounting to nothing at the end.

Meyer is obviously a masterful storyteller- he crates entire panoramas of desert, forest and brush, populating them with innumerable characters that live and breathe. There's a transient feel to the narrative as it evolves over five generations, but it makes no decisions about whether things are changing for the better or worse. One of the things that impressed me so much about this book was how unglamourous it seemed to be a billionaire- the loneliness, the responsibility, the longing for the simplicity of the wilderness. Throughout the whole book, the narrative is captivating in its brutality, not just in its violence (which is ample) but it its grim message of survival- nobody ever really wins. They simply live to fight another day.

I suppose really the book is also really about the end of things. The end of the Plains Indians' way of life. The end of the frontier. The end of American oil. The end of old money. The end of marriages and lives. It's about adapting to survive and the culling of the weak, and who count as weak change as the generations roll on. Read it if you like Cormac McCarthy, particularly Blood Meridian or if you got a bit obsessed with Rockstar's Red Dead Redemption, like I did, which is also an amazing story of the decline of the 'old ways' and the death throes of the American West.

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