Monday, November 19, 2012
Author: Philipp Meyer
Okay, we get it. America has no jobs, the Rust Belt felt the worst of it, our youth is flailing without a direction, and we need to reach inside ourselves to find a future. Anyone who has lived in America for the past five years knows that, and while the situation in the old industry centers is pitiable, we need to move on now, kay? Thanks.
Philipp Meyer's novel American Rust attempts absolutely nothing daring. Novels of the times are all too common, and it's not like any of us don't know what's happening in the factories and mills of the old production towns. We've all stepped inside what it means to be an American in these times, when the American Dream is dead and we need to find a new dream to pursue. Meyer is not touching any new ground here; in fact, he may even be wallowing in the past, depending on how you look at it.
The novel runs like the ripples in a pond-- a story of aftereffects. At the very beginning of the story, twenty year-old genius Isaac English has already stolen $4,000 in cash from his crippled father and strikes out into the dark with his best friend, Billy Poe, to make their way out of their economically crippled Pennsylvania town of Buell. However, a run-in and subsequent fight with some homeless men leaves one dead, and the two boys must face how that small act of desperate, poorly considered violence will change their lives forever.
Poe's mother Grace, police chief Bud Harris, and Isaac's sister Lee also tell chunks of the story from their perspective, but all speak from the same voice: stagnant hopelessness. Even Lee, who has escaped from Buell and married into a rich family in Connecticut, has little direction and feels trapped by her past. Grace has slid into her present with little ambition, and now regrets her choices, and Bud has tried his hardest to prevent Poe's inevitable time in prison. The novel plays out in bad choice after bad choice, all of which make sense at the time, but have negative consequences in the long run.
Shadows of the Great Depression are nearly tangible throughout the novel. The most omnipresent wound in Buell's wallet is the closure of the steel mills in the 80s, which shut down the entire Valley where the town is located. Poe, Isaac, and Lee often comment on how beautiful the landscape is despite the heavy air of economic suffering on the town, but they talk about little else. Meyer certainly understands what it's like to have little money and no job, but he doesn't seem to understand much else.
The one interesting facet of this novel is writing style. Told in stream-of-consciousness, the style is evocative of James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. In fact, Meyer is probably a Joyce fan, as he slips in a subtle mention of the author in one of Lee's segments. The format lends the novel an element of sensitivity, like stepping inside the minds of the characters, bringing them to the human level the reader sitting in their heated home with enough to eat and an alarm system.
However, that is the only humanizing thing about American Rust. Very little of it seems real, and the author may argue that that's how it really is, but having lived in America all my life, this seems rather romanticized and farfetched. None of the characters is relatable, or even realistic: Isaac the genius, removed from society, Poe the jailbait, Lee the nostalgic rebel, and Grace the regretful waiting mother. All of them neatly fit into stereotypes that we expect in a novel about a crumbling society, and though they may exist somewhere in the world, people tend to be a great deal more complicated than Meyer makes them out to be.
Bud Harris the only interesting bright spot. He is conflicted about his life, stagnated, and unsure of why he does what he does. His chapters, rife with a kind of sadness about the state that both his country and his life are in, bristle with a resigned anger, and that is the only unique thing about this book. If the whole novel had been about Bud, it would have been time better spent.
American Rust is available for the Kindle for $11.99, or $10.20 in paperback from Amazon. It's three years old now and 367 pages long, so skip buying it if you can and check your library. Overall, a pretty dull read, and dragged out far longer than it should have, but the writing style is worth a shot if you want something simple and gritty to get you through your Thanksgiving break.
On that note, happy Thanksgiving, everyone! Read a book. If you're looking for some good ones, try An Imperfect God, or if you're in a fiction mood, The Whiskey Rebels is fantastic. Or, I've heard The Jefferson Lies is great, but I haven't gotten my hands on it yet. Enjoy your break!