Review of American Rust
Last night I read a very grim book. Its title is American Rust, and the author is Philipp Meyer. The setting is a Buell, Pennsylvania, a small steel town that is slowly dying. What was once a prosperous community is falling by the wayside as as result of plant closings and a lack of jobs for people who used to enjoy a comfortable existence. Men who once made $20 and $30 an hour are reduced to working for Wendy’s earning $5.25.
The two seemingly main characters are Isaac English and Billy Poe, a small thoughtful young man and his brutish best friend. Resonance of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, which seems a tad too contrived. The other central character is Grace Poe, who embodies all of the lost and broken dreams and promises of the small town and its polluted environment.
Grace is probably the most sympathetic character, but I’m not sure that she is supposed to be the main focus. The name choice, Grace, is of course no accident, but this woman has no true shot at redemption. Her son is just this side of being a sociopath; her deadbeat husband is a drunk; and all of her dreams of going to school and making something of herself are buried in a trailer in which she never wanted to live. Her only salvation may come from the town’s Sheriff, who is himself a lost man, a man who bears an undercurrent of violence that he hides with his good ole’ boy demeanor.
The book is divided into five books, with each of the main characters taking a chapter within each of the books. It’s a structure that works well with the unfolding of the plot.
The plot is full of sadness, loss, regret, righteous indignation, anger, and instances of violence that, even though they are not described in gory detail, still leave the reader and the characters involved with a sense of loss. More than anything the overriding theme is that some things in life are beyond anyone’s control: where they end up, who they marry, whether or not they lose their job, what they are capable of, and most visibly, living in a town that is falling apart just as the country around them is also losing its way.
That’s why I chose the word grim. What few instances of happiness there are in the book are short-lived and motivated by all of the wrong reasons. The one character who you most hope will escape, Isaac, ends his adventure of riding the rails and heading for Berkeley, California and returns home, where absolutely nothing awaits him.
A few times the author is a bit heavy-handed with the imagery, for example, too much repetition of the word rust. When using a controlling metaphor in the title of the book, it is not necessary to continue to bring it up at every opportune moment in order to say to the reader, “See. This is another instance of rust, decay, dying away.”
Another thing that can be bothersome for the reader is the narrative stance. Told in third person, the narrative moves into interior monologues as the characters switch to their alternative selves. For example, when it’s Isaac’s turn, he refers to himself as “the boy,” not “me” or “myself.” Sheriff Harris continuously refers to his “Even Keel,” in capitalized letters. It’s a bit hard to explain, which probably means that it is a bit ineffective.
Still, the author’s has a good turn with words, and is very adept at creating a sense of place. I just left the book feeling too depressed because no one escapes, which I suppose if the whole point: No individual is immune from the cycle of life. In the end, even the strongest steel is reduced to rust and decay and is soon overtaken by the landscape that it once obliterated.
That being said, there is nothing wrong with a novel that looks at life from a darker point of view. Meyer’s vision reminds me of the dark side of Steinbeck, the way in which is puts characters in impossible situations and leaves them to fend for themselves. Steinbeck embodied the time of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowls. His characters often faced horrible circumstances. The big difference here, I suppose, is that some of Steinbeck’s characters triumphed. No one in American Rust triumphs; some of the characters do escape the small town, but there is no better life waiting for them down the road.
I don’t regret reading American Rust. I never regret reading a book. It’s just that sometimes, I am not prepared for the mindset into which the book places me. Sometimes that is a positive surprise, but sometimes, as with this book, it was a bleakness for which I was not prepared.