Editor’s Note: The Son is exciting, shocking, thrilling and page-turning. It is extremely violent but powerfully, not exploitatively so. The characters are vivid, intense and engaging. No matter what your tastes in fiction, you’ll have a hard time putting it down. Buy it while you can still get First Editions / First Printings. We now turn control of the review back to the non-frothing.
Story is power. Words control families, countries, empires, and worlds. The Son by Phillip Meyer begins with a transcription of a 1938 WPA recording of Eli McCullough, who claims to be 100 years old at the time of the recording. By the end of the novel, you’ll have lived through those 100 years and more; Eli’s life, his family and two other members of his family whose stories wind through to the present. It’s a powerful, purely American story that builds, word by word, a world that no longer exists but is transformed into ours. Meyer rips down into the core of what’s human to craft indelible memories. The Son builds a world from words with the power of pure story.
Immerse yourself at your peril, because Meyer’s story is raw, violent, often horrific and full of intense emotion. The craft at work here is subtle and astonishing. Meyer begins the novel taking us from one timeline to another through an almost 200-year history of the McCullough family.
The fabric of the story comes together slowly at first, though each episode is rendered in gorgeously sparse prose. Eli McCullough is 13 years old when his life is changed on the Texan frontier. It’s a battle zone, and he’s on the losing side. His son, Peter, manages to make a life for his family, and his great-grand-daughter, Jeannie, must do the same. From Comanche raiders to the descendents of Spanish landowners, from wildcat oilmen to 21st century market manipulations, Meyer takes us through three lives and six generations.
For all the grandeur that emerges, each word, each story, each chapter feels incredibly sparse and to-the-point. The prose is stripped and bare-knuckled, intense and often shockingly easy-to-read. Meyer is able to lead the unsuspecting reader into scenes of intense emotion or violence so naturally, with such little warning that they come with the terror of the unexpected. For all the rich power of the prose, The Son proves to be page-turner of the first degree.
It helps that Meyer creates a great cast of characters with slightly oddball, individual American voices. Eli is rebellious and intense with good reason. Peter, his son, is more contemplative, considering if not always considerate. Jeannie is a woman who had to compete in the Texan world of men and won. She’s aware of what she’s lost in the process, but not willing to regret her decisions. In any given forty pages, you’ll find as many well-drawn characters as you will in any other novel. Meyer’ sparse prose style works well for the creation of memorable characters.
Meyer’s world-building and plotting skills are impossible to untangle and beyond compare. The physical descriptions of the early Texan frontier and life among the Comanche are gritty and engaging; equally so, the Texas wildcatting days and the oil boom. Eli, Peter and Jeannie’s stories are intricately intertwined stories of power, sacrifice, and civilization. They are compelling because Meyer’s prose takes us seamlessly into their worlds and makes those worlds ours.
Check your expectations when you pick up Phillip Meyer’s ‘The Son.’ Here is proof that story transcends all boundaries of genre and subject, that prose overpowers history and experience to create new histories, new experiences that run raw into our minds. Here is a book where the power of story builds a world that is ours word by word. The Son lives up to Texas’s reputation.
A 2013 Interview with Philip Meyer: “…the folks who moved out there knew they were moving to a combat zone…”
Phillip Meyer is a serious guy. As we sit down and talk about his pitch-perfect take on the Great American Western Novel, ‘The Son,’ I can tell that he has pondered not just what he wrote but how it came to be with a fierce intensity.
The Son is a bit, big, novel, with lots of moving parts. It feels raw and natural, as if he just carved it out of a stack of diaries, dictionaries and encyclopedias, cutting out the bad words until only the good ones remained. But as we speak, it’s clear this was not the case. The book we have before us is V2 maybe V30. At some point, the original concept for the book gave way to the character of Eli McCullough.
Meyer likes the idea of world building, and in doing so for this novel about Texas, he spent a great deal of time in Texas, camping, living off the land, learning to make his own rope, start his own fires and make his own bows and arrows. This is why the novel has that feel of dirt beneath its fingernails. That’s not something you can fake.
Meyer and I talked quite a bit about the process of putting this novel together. It reads very quickly and seamlessly, so it’s tough to get how it did not come together that way. The feat of art, he says is to remove the traces of the effort is requires to make it.
Meyer and I also addressed some of the more controversial portrayals in the novel, his version of the Texas frontier, which he describes as a combat zone. No character or side in the novel comes off as all-good or all-bad, or even predominantly one or the other. Meyer sees one civilization as pretty much like the other. Once you have the advantage, you use it, and take as much as you can to defend it.
Meyer is every bit as eloquent as his novel. To be honest, I might not have thought I’d ever read or like this book, but having read it and even better spoken with the author, I’m on board for anything he has to offer. My take is that readers should order up the book before they listen. But if you must, try just the lightning round first; follow this link to download, or listen here:
Trust me, better to have the book on it’s on the way before you listen to our in-depth conversation by following this link to the MP3 audio file… or listening below.