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By Philipp Meyer
Ecco, 561 pp
Reviewed by Travis Fortney
Philipp Meyer's 2009 novel American Rust was one of the few literary debuts to break through that year, generating positive reviews in major publications, earning Meyer a spot on The New Yorker's 20 under 40 list, and creating a lot of hype around this recently released follow-up, The Son. Like all breakthrough novels, the reasons for American Rust's popularity were part luck, part timing, and part Meyer's talent. The book was about de-industrialization in rural Pennsylvania--a key scene takes place as the two heroes are taking shelter in an abandoned factory--and happened to be published during the economic crisis, when readers' interest in stories of victims of the recession was at its highest. Despite having undeniable potential, I thought American Rust was a disappointment. The problem with that novel was mostly with Meyer's storytelling abilities. The plotting gets wild, characters' behavior gets erratic and unbelievable, the writing gets loose. It's a book I wanted to love, and for the first hundred or so pages I did, but it ended up making me groan one too many times to earn anything like a ringing endorsement. I remember talking to a friend about American Rust, trying to describe it and build my friend's enthusiasm momentarily before feeling shame or embarrassment mixed with the certainty that if my friend were to read the book he'd see it for the work of schlockery that it is, at which point I backtracked from the endorsement and recommended Lorrie Moore's Gate at the Stairs, which came out around the same time, instead. Moore's novel has its own problems, but the comparison of the two novels is worthwhile. The difference is that Moore's novel feels like real life, while Meyer's novel feels like a writer fleshing out (i.e., making longer) a detailed outline.
Despite all this, as I said, the first hundred pages of American Rust were very good. The potential was undeniable. Enough so that I was genuinely excited to read The Son. Reviewers were tossing around comparisons to Cormac McCarthy and phrases like "Great American Novel." The book is blurbed by Richard Ford, who calls Meyer "an impressive and multi-talented storyteller." I've never had dinner with Phillipp Meyer, or drinks, or met him in person, which Ford must have, because he's clearly judging Meyer's abilities on something other than The Son. Apart from being a good or great novel (it's neither), this book certainly can't be taken as evidence of storytelling ability. The problems are shared with American Rust. A very strong first hundred pages, which quickly becomes repetitive and boring, due mostly to overly rigid and amateurish structuring on Meyer's part.
The Son begins in the spring of 1849 on the hot plains of Texas, as we watch a band of Comanches ruthlessly murder a family of settlers. The sole survivor of that massacre is Eli McCullough, who is kidnapped by the Indians, then ends up becoming a member of their tribe, which he leaves after most of them die of smallpox. Eli grows up to become an Indian hunter, then a rancher. Besides murdering at will, Eli also fathers offspring. The Son is narrated by representatives of three generations of McCulloughs: Eli, his son Peter, and his great-granddaughter Jeannie.
The offspring are the problem. Jeannie is a Scarlett O'Hara type cliché. Peter is a bit wooden, and his romantic swooning is hard to take. The main problem though is that neither of these characters (nor the narratives they occupy) are particularly compelling, especially when viewed in comparison to Eli, who rules this book and hangs over both of Peter and Jeannie's lives like a shadow they can never escape.
I'm not going to knock Meyer for a few problems in a five-hundred page novel. After all, there might be some reader out there who finds it engaging and suspenseful to have a character engage in a semi-conscious death-dance across five-hundred plus pages. There might be a reader who finds the disturbing butt-sex scene (the dutiful frontier wife doesn't want to get pregnant) in the middle of the book to be, sensual, sexy, or well-written. But to criticize Meyer's every misstep wouldn't be quite honest. The truth is that The Son does meet some minimum criteria for readability. And the subject matter does successfully evoke a feeling of Americana.
The real problem with this novel, and the only one it can't hope to escape, is structural. The narration switches too reliably: Eli, Peter, Jeannie, Eli, Peter, Jeannie, Eli, Peter, Jeannie. Certainly, a "storyteller in the good, old sense" would have no use for such a structure. Think about the last time you heard a good story; did the teller stop ever ten minutes and say, "now, wait a minute, let me catch you up on John?" That's ridiculous. A real storyteller would catch you up on John when you needed to be caught up on John, when knowing certain facts that were essential to the larger story became necessary. When Meyer constantly switches narration, it doesn't feel like he's acting out of duty to his reader, but instead like he's bound himself to a too-simple structure. When the author is so focused on maintaining control over his story, any opportunity for reaching emotional truth, which is necessarily messy and is the realm of all art, is irrevocably lost.
Out of 10: 8, or, for the the admittedly biased reviewer (this one) who thinks this book is much too well-loved, 1