Is it too early to call book of the year? Probably, but I’m throwing down the gauntlet now. Philipp Meyer follows up his extremely impressive 2009 debut, American Rust, with a novel that surpasses it in scope, storytelling and language which can only be described as epic.
Philipp Meyer burst onto the literary scene with American Rust, a contemporary novel about the people and towns our modern-day economies leave behind. The book takes place in Pennsylvania, in a town where mills and factories have been closing for over a quarter of a century and one generation can’t remember them ever being open. Two friends, twenty-year-old ‘boys’, make a bad decision and must deal with the consequences. It is a novel of our time about our time and without exaggeration deserves to become a classic.
Meyer was hailed as the modern-day John Steinbeck as well as being compared to the likes of Cormac McCarthy, Ernest Hemingway and many more literary giants. High praise indeed but deservedly so but also praise that I expect comes with a lot of pressure to deliver in his next book. And deliver Philipp Meyer does. Not only does he reinforce the praise he garnered for American Rust but goes to a whole new level.
The Son delves into America’s past and confronts its demons. The story centres on three generations of the McCullough family in Texas. Meyer takes you from the wild frontier through the Civil War and into the modern-day. From the brutal grab for land as the new American/Texan settlers encroached further West at the expense of the Native Americans, Spanish and Mexican populations to the oil boom of the early 20th century and the effort to hold on to the wealth that has literally been built on blood and bones.
The narrative jumps between the three different generations. The first, Eli, was born in 1836 and his family is amongst the early settlers. He soon becomes the only surviving member of his family when their homestead is raided by Comanche Indians and he is taken captive. The second is Peter, Eli’s son, who must confront his father’s violent past head on and make a tough choice. The third is Jeanne Anne, Peter’s granddaughter, who takes over the family business, taking it to new levels and prosperity but might be the last in the McCullough line.
Rather than an American epic that celebrates the American dream Meyer has written an American epic that confronts America’s dark past and roots. The McCullough family use whatever means at their disposal to get what they want but there are consequences down the line. Through the McCullough family Meyer explores not only generational change but economic and social change and how each collides in devastating ways. Not once, not twice but over and over again. In doing so he shows that the wild frontier of Texas in 1850 is not as far removed from 2012 as we would all like to think.
It’s time to stop comparing Philipp Meyer to the giants of American literature because with The Son he’s joined them.