REVIEW: "The Son" by Philipp Meyer

  • Posted on: 23 November 2014
  • By: TedG

It seems this book is being touted in literary and publishing circles as the “next great American novel.” Few of us were impressed with it to that level. In fact, Irv only read 60 pages before disgust overcame interest and he closed the book for good. “By that time the Comanches had abused the whites and the Texans were getting ready to abuse the Mexicans and I had had enough of cruelty and injustice,” he said.

Though he finished the book, Ted agreed. “I had this strange relationship with the book in that the writing was so good that I picked the book up to read more every chance I got, but I do so begrudgingly. I just wanted it to be over. I disliked the characters as people, and I just wanted them out of my life.”

Ron and Ed liked the book, but even Ed said that he was disappointed by it. “I thought it could be great, but it lost momentum and fell apart.”

“It was all about killing, raping, and rutting,” said John, “and I kept wondering why men throughout time have been and are so shallow and power-hungry.”

The book is one Texas family’s story, told from the perspectives of three generations––Eli McCullough, the patriarch; Peter, Eli’s son; and Jeanne, Peter’s great-granddaughter––extending from the early 1800s to the 1980s. There are scenes of rape and mutilation; the senseless murder of an entire Mexican family in their own home so the McCulloughs can have their land; and there is the pervading disappointment that successive generations do not hold the same principles as previous ones. Pride, bigotry, and wealth are drivers and goals, and the reader is a voyeur to the madness.

But why is the book titled “The Son”? Bev, who also started the book, only to put it aside in disgust, was intrigued with this question, which she posed to us before she had to be pulled out of the store and onto other commitments. Is it a biblical reference? So we discussed this first. We are not entirely sure where the title comes from, but we do not see any evidence for a biblical reference aside from the suffering Peter McCullough, son of the family patriarch Eli, endures on behalf of the sins of the family. He is troubled by the mass murder of the Garcia family, and he is a source of disappointment for Eli, who reminds of that fact on a daily basis.

The other possibility is that Peter (“the son”) is the moral center of the family, and thus the pivotal character of the book. His journal entries plumb the depths of his troubled conscience and his actions that defy the momentum of his family’s moral depravity. He is the only empathetic character in the entire book.

Our discussion of the book brought out references to the movies Little Big Man and Blazing Saddles as well as to the TV show Dallas and the mini-series Lonesome Dove. In fact, certain thematic and locational similarities to Lonesome Dove make me wonder how much Meyer was influenced by that and similar epic Westerns in writing this story.

The book does end with karmic irony that finally also explains some of the odd references in Jeanne’s earlier chapters. It also lends a touch of justice and balance.

In ranking the book, we decided that it rated a 4.6 (out of 5) for Interest, but that it held our interest negatively. “It was a train wreck we couldn’t look away from,” noted John. Not surprisingly, it also rated highly for Readability (4.75 out of 5). Meyer is a talented writer; it’s just the subject matter we take issue with. Ed was the only one to say he would read another of Meyer’s books. If we give him a score of 5 on this question, and we score the “No” responses as 1s, then mix in Adrian’s stated score of 3, an average score of 2.5 results. We really are not interested in any more insights to the depths of human ugliness.