Thud! Hear that? It's the sound of a book hitting the floor from the top shelf because one of those previous 100 Best Books is hitting the ground to make room for The Son. This is The One that you wait for, hope for, and love every minute you spend reading or listening.
Meyer's new novel has already earned comparisons to the works of Cormac McCarthy (Blood Meridian), Larry McMurtry (Lonesome Dove), James Michener (Texas), and Edna Ferber (Giant)--and justly so, as one of the most entertaining novels of the American West ever written, and probably the book to bet on as the biggest blockbuster since The Help. Spanning four generations of Texans--from the first man born into the Republic of Texas in 1836, the grand patriarch Col. Eli McCullough, to the death of his great granddaughter/oil baron, Jeannie McCullough in 2012.
Meyer is an exciting, fresh-voiced author with an historian's flair. He layers this family saga with the colorful mythopoeic history of our unique American West, painting a rugged land, fought for, and inhabited by the white man, the Indian tribes, and the Mexican people. The land itself seems a part of these people, running through their veins like the blood they shed to claim a piece of the frontier. Three family members narrate the story of the Texas McCulloughs:
Eli narrates the frontier years, beginning as a young boy kidnapped during a violent Comanche raid where he witnesses the brutal murder of his mother, sister, and brother. Eli is taken and raised as a Comanche. Instinctually, he fights to survive among what history calls the most savage tribe of Indians. When finally returned to the white society, he has embraced the Comanche so completely that he rejects the life of his childhood, and is seen as an outcast, a *white Comanche*, "either hero or sociopath." In his voice the book is alive and vivid--his young observations of a foreign harsh world so achingly raw and interesting that this time alone would have been a captivating book.
Peter McCullough, the son and resentful heir to the cattle and land fortune amassed by his father Eli, is the conscience of the book--the tender hearted, tragic love-struck narrator, traumatized by a brutal raid against a neighboring Mexican ranching family, initiated by his father and his Vaqueros under the guise of recapturing stolen livestock. Peter is disgusted by his father's legacy, trapped by his role, and stuck in a loveless marriage.
Jeanne Anne is the gutsy great granddaughter of Eli, born in 1926--a tough oil baroness with the hide of an armadillo, that must fight to be accepted in a *man's business*. Meyer gives her a strong and authentic presence, and captures her inner-battles of carrying on the family legacy and raising her own family. The three narrations wind in and out of each other with an unhindered clear progression that moves the saga along effortlessly, until the mighty family trickles to just a stream.
The evolution is bloody and brutal. Meyer relates the unsparing events detached from emotion, offsetting the horrific deeds with the instinct for survival - and the need for prosperity...the path of all histories. The violence is also set against the backdrop of the natural beauty of the American West - the rugged and unforgiving landscape, the choreography in the hunting of buffalo, raising cattle, excavating for oil, It is the process of birth in nature and life and seems organic. With these filters, the violence is authentic to the history and never grabbed me as gratuitous or manipulative. You listen with a strange sense of acceptance. (I wasn't aware that some of our *current slang* ain't so current.)
You hear a rattle and a native drumbeat, joined by a strumming guitar and the chords of a melancholy harmonica--and finally the smoky twang of Will Patton's voice hits your ears. It's all like the thrill of hearing the swelling surround-sound envelop you at a theatre...there's an excitement already to this one, promising an adventure that is delivered with perfection. A powerful, raw story, from an author destined to be known and a book that won't be forgotten. The Son kept me spellbound and left me looking back, yearning for more of this journey across Texas through the years.
*This is already so long, but I thought the interview with Meyer featured on Amazon was worth mentioning. His research process and commitment were very interesting.
I'd not heard of Smith Henderson. He has won both the Pushcart Prize and a PEN Emerging Writers Award in 2011; he also wrote the Emmy-nominated Super Bowl commercial “Halftime in America” which featured Clint Eastwood. The buzz in such circles that follow these kind of *accomplishments* has his name and the *Great American Novel* in the same orbit. Oblivious to Henderson prior to Audible's *Best of the Month* book list, I found myself, throughout this one, asking, "Can this truly be a debut novel?"
It is no coincidence that Henderson dips his toe into the book writing business with the aptly named Fourth of July Creek. His depiction of 1980's America is heartbreaking and beautiful -- the kind of story flowing with the flotsam and jetsam down-and-outters that would have inspired a Woody Guthrie song. Like watching the ripples radiate from a rock thrown into Henderson's creek, the story grows and encompasses different themes and struggles until it slams onto the landscape of 'this land made for you and me' of today.
The ghosts of Tom Joad inhabit the pages. Henderson's wretched refuse battle their own demons: poverty, drug addiction, alcoholism, sexual abuse, neglect, and mental illness, Hope driving them on as they struggle for different kinds of freedom. The people seem scraped from our underbelly. Even the DCFS case worker, Pete Snow, is a divorced alcoholic -- dispersing disposable diapers from the trunk of his car to homeless mothers, hiking into the mountains to aid the son of a Old Testament quoting survivalist. His own teen daughter has run away, disappearing into the seedy Seattle life of prostitution and drug addiction. He admits to his ex-wife, "I take kids away from people like us." (An insider's joke in psychology has always been: the odd treating the id.)
How is it that we go on reading when an author makes us ache to our bones? When we can see the projection of an inevitable disaster, the futility of any effort, the cruelty of hope? Because Henderson's language is like a healing balm. It is elegant and rings with bare truth. He glides effortlessly from despair and ugliness to the beautiful realism redolent of Woodrell's *hillbilly noir* novel Winter's Bone, and the zen-like beauty of Heller's Dog Stars. It is restorative, redemptive. How can this be a debut novel?
I'll admit 5 stars is generous. It takes a commitment to get going, and it is a gritty tough novel -- but it is worth it. Novels that still vibrate in you long after you finish them, or when you hear the title mentioned, are rare. This one is like a Steinbeck and McCarthy novel taped together, with a Guthrie and Springsteen soundtrack running through the pages.
**I will caution readers: the female characters here range from meth-head child abusers to full blown mental cases that murder their whole families, with nothing in between but prostitutes and hard-boiled backwoods ignoramuses. If you are looking for the positive female pillar of righteousness...wrong book.
Finally, I was curious about Guthrie's patriotic anthem "This Land Was Made For You and Me". Inspired to read the lyrics, I found the Dustbowl Balladeer's original verses -- which aren't contained in the song we learned back in elementary school:
Nobody living can ever stop me,
As I go walking that freedom highway;
Nobody living can ever make me turn back
This land was made for you and me.
In the squares of the city,
In the shadow of a steeple;
By the relief office, I'd seen my people.
As they stood there hungry,
I stood there asking,
Is this land made for you and me?