A novel about terse men with guns will inevitably summon comparisons to Hemingway. One set in the South will likewise invoke Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy. The Son by Philipp Meyer has its Hemingway-esque motifs; scenes of scalpings and general rapine do recall McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. Meanwhile, Meyer’s decision to write using different voices riffs on Faulkner’s stylistic experiments.
At times Meyer does seem to be aping these predecessors, but his latest book is no mere homage. This talented young writer—one of the New Yorker’s “20 under 40”—has his own voice, and it owes as much perhaps to Virginia Woolf as to the male American canon.
The Son concerns several generations of Texans: Eli McCullough, his son Peter and Peter’s granddaughter Jeanne Anne. Eli’s tale, told in straight narrative, is set before and during the Civil War. Peter’s, told in diary form, centers on the Great War. J.A.’s, told in interior monologue, spans the latter 20th century.
The most compelling of these characters is Eli, who watches Comanches murder his family and then is taken captive by them. Years pass, and he becomes accustomed to their independent ways, so that even after his so-called liberation, Eli pines for his adoptive people.
Peter’s main struggle is with the Mexicans who once owned the Lone Star State. He witnesses Mexicans being massacred, and when one survivor calls him to account, he must choose between his love for her and his duty to a family who scorns the “wetbacks.”
For J.A., the problem is how to carry on the family name in a completely masculinized culture (women, Eli had said, “had no common sense”). She also struggles with her Texan pride, given that her nation, rather than being grateful for the state’s once indispensable oil production (“life as they knew it did not exist without Texas”), treats her kind with chilly Yankee superiority. On top of that, J.A. is a McCullough, and her ancestors’ enemies remember.
Meyer writes with grace, if not economy, and always with great sympathy, only occasionally careening into the saccharine. His knowledge of Comanche folkways is admirable, and, unlike Hemingway, he can write convincing women.
The novel’s epigraph is from Gibbon, and so its overarching theme is ephemerality—the decline of families shadowed by the decline of empires—a theme evident as well in the title of Meyer’s previous work, American Rust. The Son is a shining second step in a promising career.
Read a Q&A with Philipp Meyer for The Son.