A few years ago when I reviewed Philipp Meyer’s debut novel, “American Rust,” I noted that novelists spend entire careers trying to write even one classic book. Philipp Meyer accomplished that feat on his first attempt. “American Rust” might one day be recognized as one of our great American novels.
“American Rust” was my favorite work of fiction in 2009. In my year-end capsule review I wrote: The steel mill shut down long ago in a decaying river town in Pennsylvania. Two friends wander into an abandoned building. They encounter strangers. A random act of violence occurs.
Innocence fractures. Meyer forges a magical story, part crime novel, part road novel. These two young men are hurled upon dire trajectories.
One runs off. The other ends up in prison.
Since then I have been wondering how he could possibly top that first book. The author just issued his second novel, “The Son.” I’m thrilled to report that this book is even better that the first one. “The Son” is a multigenerational tale set primarily in Texas. The story ranges across a period of over 150 years. There are three main narrators.
Colonel Eli McCullough was the founder of a Texas cattle and oil empire. The Colonel and several of his descendants provide the narration for “The Son.” In 1849 Eli is twelve years old and he describes the day that his father left his wife, daughter and two sons at home so that he could pursue some horse thieves.
Eli recalls that “around midnight I heard our dogs rucking up a chorus.” Then he observes “there were a dozen men near our fence and more in the shadows near the road and still more in our side yard.”
These intruders are a Comanche raiding party. Eli is abducted and held captive. The Comanches take him far away and enslave him with a number of other captives in a remote region far distant from any so-called civilization.
Eli’s account of his servitude and ultimate transition into becoming a Comanche warrior makes for wildly entertaining reading. Eli’s narration alternates with that of his son, Peter McCullough. Peter’s account takes place 65 years later. His father Eli is now an elderly cattle baron just beginning to amass vast petroleum holdings.
The third narrator is Jeanne Anne McCullough,Eli’s great grand-daughter. She is nearing the end of her life and is looking back at how she has expanded the family’s wealth despite the impediment of being a woman surrounded my men who didn’t show much respect for her intellect and business acumen.
Jeanne is brilliant and tough. She realizes things like: “not that she was complaining, but it had never stopped being strange that what was praised in men — the need to be good at everything, the need to be someone important — would be considered a character flaw in her.”
Near the end of the book Meyer introduces a fourth narrator, another family member who shall remain anonymous in this review. This last narrator ties this sprawling and utterly captivating novel together.
Meyer has penned another masterpiece of American fiction. Read it and see if you don’t agree.
THIS WEEK’S BOOK
“The Son” by Philipp Meyer (Ecco, 561 pages, $27.99)