From the Reading List

American Rust


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.

abandoned steel factoryThat’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.


6 thoughts on “From the Reading List

  1. Ah Lita, my guide. Awesome. Real unhappy to hear about the tetnus shot being a bugger. Really? It’s on my list of disaster preparedness. That and to renew my passport. That’s what a dope I was becoming, let it lapse. Can you join me on my summer vacation? Will you have some fun…this summer? I’ll order anything you’d like? Sun, rain, stars, diesel exhaust. Thailand, Costa Rica. No place cold. Do you do travel books? Wow, changing my life. Needed to see that in print to hear your words. Thanks.

    1. I’ve never been into travel books, but I hear that Costa Rica is absolutely beautiful. I desperately need a summer/spring/fall/winter vacation. Always keep your passport renewed. You never know when there may be a call for you to get to Thailand vite, vite.

      By the way, hate the smell of diesel fumes. They give me a headache. Corey’s is quite used to them because of the tugboats. He thought about buying a diesel truck a long time ago because diesel was cheaper than gasoline. I’m so glad that he didn’t.

  2. Hi Lita,
    A thorough and articulate review. Thanks for that. Based on what you have written, I think the book may be a bit depressing right now, given the current uncertainty of employment.
    Take care

    1. It was very depressing, which I can take most of the time, but the overwhelming inability of anyone to be able to escape just really did me in.

  3. No individual is immune from the cycle of life? Cycle of life I begin again as in my face for now. Tetanus shot is in order for me, Verily I go! Thank you my darling for being my reader of books and teaching me these. I just get to know.

    1. Tetanus shots hurt like a bugger. I wouldn’t put this on your reading list only because you need to be very choosy about the books that you are going to tackle in the midst of redoing your house and changing your life. I wouldn’t want you to read it and end up curled in the closet crying.

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