Philipp Meyer’s good ‘Son’ | Lifestyle.INQ

OCTOBER 27, 2022

Seven generations of the McCullough clan are introduced to the readers in a family tree that opens Philipp Meyer’s “The Son: A Novel” (Ecco, New York, 2013, 561 pages). This foreshadows the sweeping scope  of this critically acclaimed novel, only the second from Meyer, the author of the similarly critically acclaimed 2009 book “American Rust.”


Now AMC, the same American cable network that adapted “The Walking Dead” to worldwide frenzy and acclaim, has announced that it will be adapting “The Son.”


What a worthy choice AMC has made. “The Son” is a thunderous, dramatic throwback to the days when American epics were being created all the time. This one is a multigenerational family opera about the McCullough clan, about how they had won the West but paid a terrible price to do so. After all, how far would you go for family?


Col. Eli McCullough was born on the same day the Republic of Texas declared its independence: March 2, 1836.


“I was the first male child of this new republic,” he states.


“The Son” follows him as Texas itself rises fitfully into creation, and then follows McCullough’s descendants as they struggle to survive in whatever ways they could find.


Conflicted and thoughtful, Peter is Eli’s son. Driven and fearful, Jeanne Anne is Eli’s great granddaughter. Between them flows a bloodline that has seen the West change, with Eli—known later in life only as the Colonel—seeing the white man take the lands from the Indians; Peter receiving the full brunt of the white man hatefully vanquishing the Mexicans in their midst;  and Jeanne Anne making her own way as a businesswoman in the contemporary era.


Three narratives


The Colonel lives a long, difficult life and he is the figure that looms large over “The Son.”


His words echo through the decades with urgency and heft. “There are responsibilities,” he tells Peter. “We don’t just get to act like normal people.”


“Remember that,” he tells Jeanne Anne. “None of it’s worth a s__t until you put your name on it.”


“The Son” stretches out mostly through three distinct narratives following the travails of members of the McCullough clan: Eli beginning in 1849, Peter in 1915 and Jeanne Anne in 2012.

While Eli’s and Peter’s stories are told in first person, Jeannie’s story is told through flashbacks in the third person, the three eventually dovetailing in impressive fashion.


Most interesting of these is that of Eli, who survives the murder of his family, is captured and indoctrinated by an Indian tribe before he returns to the white man’s world.


At the end of the book lie unexpected yet inevitable revelations, secrets thought lost, discoveries thought impossible.


Bloodthirsty opera


An ambitious novel about ambition, “The Son” is a bloodthirsty opera of race, cattle, land and oil. Personal lives become hopelessly damaged as the Old World is butchered by the New World. There are sacrifices to be made for the McCulloughs to become the McCulloughs.


Love, respect and repentance: These are things that are thrown into the fire as the McCullough’s territory sprawls across the land like a curse and a blessing. It turns out that family tree is a warning more than anything else.


Meyer’s writing is powerful and gripping, falling unto the reader like a fever untouched by medicine. His thick, terrific prose tames the unbranded audience.


As a result, “The Son” is neither forgiving nor forgetful. It demands your concentration and requires your emotional involvement.


An epic unfolding across four wars and two centuries, over parched desert and lush prairie, in big cities and small towns, Philipp Meyer’s “The Son” promises to be prime material for a big TV drama, a transcendent tale of American history and the McCulloughs, a  flawed, fierce family whose fortunes mirror the violent shaping of the nation.


Available in paperback from National Book Store.

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