It is difficult to summarize this book, for its scope and breadth are massive. It has been described a 'sweeping American epic,' and that it is. The Son covers more than a hundred years of Texan and American West history, as well as four generations of the tragic McCullough family.
The narrative cycles between three primary characters: Eli McCullough (later known as The Colonel, though it is only a nickname; he holds no military rank), whose story begins in the 1850's when his family is killed by Comanche Indians and he is taken captive, Peter McCullough, Eli's somewhat pathetic and endlessly cynical son who is struggling for his father's approval and to manage the family business in 1917, and Jeannie McCullough, the great-granddaughter of Eli and owner of the now multimillion dollar McCullough oil business from the 1950's to present day.
The bulk of the book is taken up by Eli's story, and primarily his time with the Comanches from ages thirteen to sixteen. This section is fascinating, tragic, horrifying, and ultimately beautiful in a way that I believe most readers will find unfamiliar because of the time period in which it is set. The passages describing the lives of the Indians are vibrant; lengthy paragraphs explain in great detail their ways of life, such as hunting, tracking, skinning and preparing animals for food and supply—they wasted no part of the carcass, everything could be used for something—making tools or weapons, grooming for battle, and the inner-workings and respect system of their tribe. Meyer clearly went to great lengths to research these practices and describe them accurately, and the narrative is all the more rich for it. The descriptions of food throughout the book are incredibly succulent and mouth-watering, which is weird to say when the meals being described (the brains and marrow of a buffalo, squirrel meat, deer stomach, etc.) are not exactly delicacies of our day.
There is a strange and sad parallel between the boy Eli the reader comes to know (and love, and sympathize with) and The Colonel, a disgruntled old man, spoken about by his family in later chapters. The Colonel is considered to be stoic and hard and unreasonable, concerned only with money, oil, and expanding his empire. However, knowing his back story explains his behavior as an older man, and the reader cannot help but feel sorry for the things he has lost and the changes he has seen his country undergo.
Peter is, as mentioned, constantly striving for his father's respect and always seems to come up short. He considers himself untalented and the least favorite of his father's three sons; a disappointment, not business-minded, and a 'soft' man, unfamiliar with the rough ways of life on the frontier. I found him to be a complex character, as there are times when I was irritated with him and thought his sections were nothing but complaint and whiny talk, yet I grew to feel sympathy for him and realized that he, too, was just another sad character.
Jeannie's sections are full of conflict and uncertainty. Her story spans from her self-conscious teenage years—during which she furiously second-guesses her every thought and desperately wants to be perceived as pretty—to her elderly decline as an extremely wealthy, powerful woman with estranged children who is just as unsure of herself as she was as a child. Jeannie's story is perhaps the most heartbreaking of the three characters, mostly because her every thought is agonizing and uncertain, and she feels like such a real character; an authentic person. Also, Meyer's ability to write in a woman's voice is—to my eyes—quite good.
There are glad moments, as well as humor, but this book is defined by a dark, heavy cloud that hangs over every circumstance. Each characters' wants, needs, and desires are clearly laid out, yet they often go unsatisfied; The Son is a work of great dissonance. But it also contains careful observation and appreciation, both for the human heart and the rich landscape of the West. To call it ambitious is an understatement. It is at once lovely and sad.
The ending left me feeling not devastated, nor overjoyed, but in a way: just right. It ends how it ought to end; it ends like real life. Philipp Meyer has done something incredible with this novel, and there are so many still, small moments within it to appreciate. If you decide to take the journey with the McCullough family, I believe you will feel, like me, better for having done so.