At Passover gatherings, Jews like myself have been known to sing an old song called “Dayeinu.” As is appropriate for an evening honoring and celebrating our exodus, it is a song of gratitude. It consists of listing the miracles bestowed upon the Jewish people by their God – the parting of the sea, the appearing of the manna. After each miracle, we proclaim “Dayeinu!” – which translates roughly to “it would have been enough.” Each miraculous occurrence was more than we deserved.
While reading “The Son,” Philipp Meyer’s ambitious new novel, I had a bit of a “Dayeinu” moment. Midway through the book, I realized that, even if the story went completely off the wheels in the final half, even if it suddenly turned into a Nicholas Sparks novel somehow, it would’ve been worth reading. If all Meyer have given us was The Colonel, “Dayeinu.” It would have been more than enough.
Who is The Colonel, you ask? Well, in the book’s opening pages, which present themselves as a transcript of a Works Progress Administration recording (one of Meyer’s many great uses of historical detail), he is a 100-year old man who refuses to go gently into that good night—or anywhere else, for that matter.
He’s the kind of man who’ll spout off about the stupidity of women and the genius of Alexander the Great in the same breath, and who expects you to listen to all of it without a moment’s inattention. This man is a deeply compelling character from his first lines.
As The Colonel begins to reflect upon his early years in freshly-settled 19th century Texas, a more complex individual is revealed, a man torn between empathy and savagery. This internal conflict is exacerbated when a Comanche band storms his house, kills some of his family, and kidnaps the rest. Over the next several years, many of the captives struggle with deprivation or surrender to death, but our main character survives, adapting to the ways of the Comanche by learning everything from how to converse in a new language to how to cut off the top of a man’s head. The first part of the book plays like a long, satisfying corrective to “Dances With Wolves,” with both the way of the white man and the way of the tribe getting nuanced, deep looks.
Eventually, through circumstances I will not reveal, The Colonel is returned to the world of the white man, free to do as he pleases.
By alternating The Colonel’s story with the stories of his children, who appear in flash-back-and-forward interludes throughout the book, Meyer examines how the Colonel’s attitude towards that newfound freedom impacts the rest of his family. His decisions prime his progeny for both ambition and emptiness.
At the heart of all this is a question: after winning one’s independence, how does a former captive react to his newfound liberty? This is a question faced not only by The Colonel, but by the newly formed state in which he lives. Meyer is certainly aware of this fact, and addresses the micro and macro versions of the question with equal thoroughness.
In addressing said question, Meyer uses methods both effective and flawed. The constant time-shifting brings his themes into focus, but it also makes the Tolstoyan preponderance of names and places even more difficult to follow. This is, however, a small price to pay for a book that, for the most part, successfully balances depth and breadth. We know the souls of the characters, as well as the sweep of the landscape.
“The Son“ has understandably been compared to “Blood Meridian,” Cormac McCarthy‘s Western that also has a massive scope and a single monolithic character. That novel was such a rhapsodic success that literary critic Harold Bloom claimed it “closed out the Western tradition”. There was, in his opinion, nothing of any substance left for the genre to say.
“The Son” doesn’t reach the rarefied heights of “Blood Meridian” – what could? But it does show us that this oft-overlooked genre still has something profound and impressive to say, and intriguing characters who will say it. And that, for me and for all of us, should be enough. “Dayeinu,” indeed.
Philipp Meyer is a featured author for the 2014 San Antonio Book Festival. Meyer will join fellow author Michael Fischer in discussion of “The Son” at 11 – 11:45 a.m. on April 5 in the West Terrace venue (3rd Floor of Central Library). Download the full festival schedule as a PDF here. For a more interactive approach, download Eventbase from the app store on your phone (iPhone or Android) and you can customize your own schedule for the day by choosing favorites.