More is less

This is my review of The Son by Philipp Meyer.

This saga covering five generations of the McCullough family portrays the creation of the state of Texas as an example of a central theme of history – survival of the fittest as a succession of invaders seize and exploit the land for themselves, often destroying the landscape in the process. In this case, "the dry rocky place it is today" was once a green land of deep black soil, trees, tall grass, "even the steepest hillsides overrun with wildflowers".

The viewpoint switches on a three chapter cycle: Colonel Eli McCullough, tough and vengeful, even psychopathic, made acquisitive by harsh experience, who survives capture by the Comanche Indians as a teenager to become head of a major cattle and oil dynasty; his granddaughter Jeanne Anne, a "chip off the old block" who carries on his work; his son Peter, sensitive and introspective, so dismissed as weak, his whole life blighted by the guilt of the family's casual massacre of an old Mexican family, rivals for land. Ironically Ulises Garcia, a descendant of both families, may prove a worthier inheritor of the Colonel's wealth than his pampered great-great-grandchildren who have lost their fighting spirit. Running three main threads in parallel may confuse the reader, and for me it detracted from the dramatic tension of some key events, but it helps to remind one continually of the connections between the characters, the causes and effects of their actions.

Although at times it may seem little more than a swashbuckling western or prequel to a Dallas-type soap, this is raised above the average by the depth of Meyer's research. Too often, chunks of this are planted in the middle of the drama, but some passages are fascinating, such as the detailed description of how Indians made ingenious use of every part of a buffalo, leaving only the heart within the rib-cage to show the gods they were not greedy, or the chilling account of exactly how a teenage white boy turned native would set about preserving his first scalp.

The well-knotted ending enhanced my opinion of the story after some lengthy periods of frustration in which I wished Meyer had worked a little harder on his dialogue and character development – inevitably thin at times with so many players, and that he had been more ruthless in leaving out some minor scenes to leave more space for "showing" rather than the "telling" which is often too dominant. These shortcomings, such as the corny Hollywood-style of communication adopted by Eli's Comanche companions around 1850, place this book closer to airport blockbuster than literary fiction. I'm sure it will sell very well, it is impressive but not in the same league as Cormac McCarthy with his mindblowing prose.

This will inspire many to revisit the history of the development of the west, but in the meantime a glossary of e.g. Mexican terms used and of some historical characters mentioned would have been useful.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

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