An American Wild West family epic spanning five generations from the 1850s to present day, from cattle farming to oil bonanza via the American Civil War. This is a hard-core Western complete with scalp collecting natives, corrupt sheriffs and torture of various kinds. It’s not for the fainthearted, but a riveting read if you can stomach a bit of violence.
The Son follows the McCullough family, starting with the larger-than-life character of Eli, also known as the Colonel. Eli’s mother, brother and sister are brutally murdered in a savage attack on their farm while Eli is kidnapped, dragged for days through the scorching prairie and tortured at every turn. It’s hard to say who had the better luck.
Impressed with Eli’s resilience, the Native Americans adopt him as their own. Meyer’s vivid description of Native American tribal life is absolutely thrilling and definitively one of the highlights of this book. When illness kills most of the tribe, Eli returns to the ‘white’ world, but finds it exceedingly hard to adjust and continues his Native American life-style by sleeping rough, stealing the neighbours’ horses and peeking through their windows. Eli impregnates the daughter of his adopted family, settles down with her and starts as a cattle-farmer.
Eli’s son Peter is cut from a different cloth, sensitive and appalled by his father’s cynicism and treatment of anyone who stands in his way. Indeed, Peter ponders ‘how two men from the same stock could be so different.’ He is haunted by a brutal incident where Eli, probably wrongly, accuses the neighbours, the Mexican Garcia family, of stealing horses. On the orders of Eli, eighteen family members are killed. Only one daughter, Maria, survives. Soon the Garcia’s land ends up in the hands of the McCullough’s and that, according to Eli, is as it should be.
That is how the Garcia’s got the land, by cleaning off the Indians, and that is how we had to get it. And one day that is how someone will get it from us.
As cattle ranching loses its lustre, the McCullough’s start buying up oil rights and amass a fortune, just at a time when Texas sailed up as the largest oil producer in the world.
The third narrator is Jeannie Anne, Peter’s granddaughter, heir to the fortune and a chip off the old block. The Eli one, that is. A hard, ruthless businesswoman, fighting her way past sexism in the brutal world of Texan oil exploration. Think female J.R. Ewing.
Abandonment and loneliness haunt the McCullough’s. And while their take-no-prisoners attitude serves them well in surviving abuse by Native Americans and in the oil business, it’s less conducive to a happy family life.
There were time she imagined how she might have turned out had she stayed in the North. Like Jonas, she knew, settled and comfortable, she would have been someone’s wife. And that was not who she had wanted to be. And yet Jones had four children who adored him, a dozen grandchildren. Her houses, all three of them, were empty. Pointless monuments.
In The Son, Meyer explores the dog eat dog mentality of survival, the relentless pursuit of power and wealth and what it does to your mind. I wouldn’t call this a cheerful read and none of these characters are people you would want to hang out with, but we all know they are out there. The Son is also very much a novel about the history of the South West of America and the violence that underpins so much of that history.
Meyer is a consummate storyteller and The Son is a thrilling, fast-paced, action packed read. His style of writing is as no nonsense and direct as the protagonist’s behaviour. Unfortunately, the novel loses some of its pace and intensity towards the end, but do persist, as the ending itself is well worth it.
The book has received rave reviews, some of which I have attached.
Catherine Taylor – The Telegraph
The Son by Phillip Meyer is published by Simon & Schuster, 561 pages