Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Son by Philipp Meyer

2013 Catapult Notable #1 right here, folks. No doubt.

I read Philipp Meyer's debut novel, American Rust in 2010 - after it was picked as a NY Times Notable, earned him a Guggenheim Fellowship and into the New Yorker 20 Under 40 group that I'm always on about. You might remember that I was reading it during the hellish 117 Days, if you read very, very carefully. That book was about a horrible act of violence and a series of bad decisions made in a dying Pennsylvania steel town - spare, sad, and filled with heartache. This new book - The Son - is nothing short of being an American EPIC in every sense.

I mentioned this book in brief back in February, right after I read it and before I shook Meyer's hand at the ABA's Winter Institute in Kansas City. His publisher, Ecco, took my most bombastic quote and tweeted it to their several thousand followers, which was pretty rad:

I loved the narrative style of The Son - told in three distinct voices: that of Colonel Eli McCullough, 100 years old and recording his story for WPA posterity in 1936; the diary entries of Eli's son, Peter in 1915; and the memories of Eli's great-granddaughter, Jeanne Anne McCullough in 2012. Through these three, Meyer gives you a tremendous scope of an amazing span of American history: from Eli's birth in 1836 to Jeanne's life in 2012. Even more astounding is Eli's lifespan alone: from 1836 to 1936 - think about that. Eli was kidnapped and raised by Comanches as a teenager, was 30 years old when the Civil War ended, and he lived to see the goddamn stock market crash.

Eli - the Colonel - eventually becomes a cattleman, earning a fortune on his steer, carving out a place on the Texas hardpan for his family. Peter never comes close to living up to his father's expectations - having a hard time with the violent, inequitable nature of life on the border. But Jeanne, Peter's granddaughter, has all the salt in her veins of Eli and rules the Texas oilfields ruthlessly for decades, bringing the family to unprecedented heights of power and wealth. But at what cost?

Incredibly, as the story progresses and the chapters fall away, your perceptions of who these people are changes in dramatic ways. Your early vision (or, at least, mine) of who Eli was and what his core values were are flipped by the end of the saga. Jeanne WAY more so - she's never really the innocent that she would have you believe when her story begins. (Cold-hearted bitch, in fact.) These sort of narrative gymnastics can only be pulled off by a gradual unfolding - as it would be if you were to actually spend time with these people, rather than having an abrupt switch in character core shoved in your face. Meyer... damn, does he pull this off. My opinion of these people changed so gradually throughout that I never realized that I was the one changing. By the end, Jeanne could only react to certain situations in a certain way and I could never see her acting any differently, even though, 500 pages earlier, I was completely on board with her perceived innocence. In fact, it is that distinct lack of innocence - all around, across the board - that is the driving force to this novel; Comanche, Texas settler, Mexican homesteader, makes no difference. Everyone is flawed in the end - which makes this a perfectly imagined American epic when you think about it.

Meyer's prose blazes across the page - certainly on par with Blood Meridian, Lonesome Dove, Robert Olmstead, or anything else you can think of that offers a fictionalized history of the American West. So far, quite easily the best book I've read in 2013. And it's gonna be hard to beat...

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