Once Upon a Time in the West – The Son by Philipp Meyer

the sonI must confess I’m slightly baffled by the almost universal brilliant reviews this book has received. The star givers on Amazon can be a fickle bunch and this sweeping but detail heavy epic has, I would have thought, much to put off the casual reader. Certainly I’ve seen less forgiving reviews on books (often only partially read), that were much more accessible than ‘The Son’.

Around page 250 I nearly gave up. I’d slogged through graphic details of rape, murder, scalping, pillage, horse riding, landscapes and oil wells, but found the book lacked urgency and direction. Despite this, I pressed on and I am glad I did.

For a brief time I thought ‘The Son’ was going to be one of those books that requires perseverance but ultimately pays back its readers’ persistence with interest. A novel where the effort and exercise of having read it make the fruit it bears taste all the sweeter. Some of my favourite novels fit into this category and The Son was almost there, before fading away to a rather flat conclusion. Flat yet fitting.

There are three narrative threads, but they unwind at a glacial pace. Even the story of the young Eli McCullough witnessing the cold blooded murder of his family before being abducted by Comanche Indians failed to hold my interest across so many pages. The other stories describe further generations of McCulloughs, all descended from ‘The Colonel’; family patriarch Eli, who lived to be one hundred years old and was by all accounts a right royal bastard.

Peter McCullough writing in 1917 is something of a black sheep in the family; he appears to have a conscience. He is caught in a maelstrom of events as a family of Mexicans are gunned down after an alleged cow rustling incident (unless it was horses, it was a lot of pages ago). Jeanne Anne McCullough, narrates her story from 1980’s, towards the end of her life. She is the head of a oil company, and a tough woman in a man’s world.  Each of the three narratives is told in chapters one after the other. ie Eli, Peter, Jeanne, Eli, Peter, Jeanne… As the novel progresses the three strands weave together forming a tapestry of the history of Texas.

Whilst not completely convinced by the novel as a whole (It’s too long and Jeanne Anne’s tale is significantly weaker than the other two), it contains much to admire and enjoy. There are some breathtaking passages with language that is rich and authentic. The view given of Texas, its inception and rise to oil-fuelled supremacy is fascinating. It’s a subject I knew little about, and it inspired me to do a little further reading to find out more. Meyer’s brutal but sensitive depiction of the Comanche tribe is often fascinating despite slowing the pace of the narrative. This is not a novel for the faint-hearted. Its violence is unrelenting, vivid and unflinching. Life was hard and cheap in frontier America. It’s a land soaked in blood. (I flicked through the my copy today, stopping randomly. On any given page there was at least some reference to violence and death.)

Above everything, The Son offers a view of contemporary society through the lens of the past. There is a beautiful chapter about the capture and slaughter of a buffalo that says as much about modern consumerism and waste than it does about the eating habits of the Comanche. There is great weight lent to the idea that the hard work of our forefathers is often squandered by later generations. Wealth and comfort breed laziness and a contempt for the hard work that gave us the warmth and security in the first place.

Finally, there is a definite sense of the impermanence of man. The Son unexpectedly dovetailed with my previous read ‘The King and the Slave’; two tales about empire separated by 7000 miles and 2500 years. Both novels examine the idea that rulers come and go. Those ousted first ousted somebody else. Nothing is permanent and legends outlive empires. The sense of the land being scarred but unmoved by the events of The Son is very real. The land lives on long after those who walk it are dead.

The end of the novel irritated me. Having stuck to over 500 pages in his 1,2,3,1,2,3 structure, Meyer suddenly adds a fourth voice. This is a personal bugbear, but I think if an author chooses a device they should stick to it. To deviate feels like cheating, but perhaps that’s just me. Overall I found The Son to be a desperately bleak novel. It gives a depressingly dim (accurate) view of human nature. It is no way a comfortable read and as such I find it difficult to recommend, but as an examination of culture, habits and history of the American west, it is a fascinating and illuminating read.

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