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.


Muckraking, Mud, and Mickey?

Hello? Is Anyone Out There With a Brain?

Dirty Tricks—A New Low

Someone has distributed a flyer in Hampton Roads that bears the official state seal and the seal of the State Board of Elections. The flyer advises that Republican party supporters should vote on Tuesday, November 4th, and Democratic party supporters should vote on Wednesday, November 5th.

The State Board of Elections has issued an official rumor-busting document telling voters to disregard the fake flyer. Distribution of the flyer has included the Hampton Roads cities of Virginia Beach, Hampton, and Newport News.

Pretty despicable stuff, huh? Now, I know that there are those of you out there who would say that anyone foolish enough to fall for something like this deserves what they get. But remember, there are people who are voting for the first time ever, for the first time in decades, for the first time in this country, not to mention the people who are already a little paranoid about voter fraud and don’t want to do anything wrong.

We’re dealing with a whole new body of voters, and the point is not to make assumptions, or worse, to be condescending. I cannot help but remember the first free elections in South Africa and the lines that those people stood in for days for their chance to participate in Democracy for the first time in their lives. Well, I don’t mean to overreact, but I’ve talked to people who are in their eighties, their eighties, who haven’t participated in the democratic process for years because they saw no point, and for the first time in a long time, they actually believe that their vote will count. What if one of these individuals received this flier and became confused? What if one of these elderly voters were to believe this heinous piece of idiocy, this malarkey. We cannot sit back and allow them to be stripped of hope just when they have found it again.

And yes, the typos should be a tip off, but I’ve seen government documents with typos. Nevertheless, the whole thing is incredibly lame and desperate, and it leaves me with a bitter taste in my mouth. I should very much like to find the perpetrator(s) of this bilge, and just ask them why. Why? Do they believe that this is humorous in some way? Do they think that this is scoring one for their side? Do they understand what Democracy in a free society means? Do they not realize how much is being sacrificed for this very act right now? And then . . . well, I would very much like to hand them over to Richard Simmons for one week of Sweatin’ it to the Oldies. (It was that, or something illegal, and hey, they aren’t worth it.)

(Go to see a full-sized copy of the fake flyer.)

Obama’s Tuesday Campaign Trail No Place for Sissies

Obama supporters proved themselves diehards in Pennsylvania and Virginia on Tuesday by braving the elements to see the man who would be president. The Senator’s first stop in a key swing state was a brutal one. Cold winds and icy rain in Hershey, Pennsylvania didn’t stop a crowd of approximately 9,000 supporters from turning out to see Obama at Widener University in Chester. Television clips showed the crowd covered in rain ponchos and garbage bags, and the Senator standing there in a rain jacket, still delivering his message: “if we’re willing to reach deep down inside us, when times are tough, when it’s cold, when it’s raining, when it’s hard — that’s when we when stand up.” 

 Meanwhile McCain and Palin bailed on their planned stop in Quakertown for an outdoor rally yesterday morning because of the weather. You have to wonder about that decision. But, what do I know?

And then the big rally in Norfolk last night brought in an estimated 20,000 Obama supporters—12,000 in the seats, and then another 8,000 on the field. I wasn’t one of them, unfortunately; I was left watching the live cast on my computer. Temperatures at Harbor Park were in the 40’s, and the wind was blowing off the Elizabeth RIver. I made the right decision, between the bright stadium lights and the bracing wind, my head would have exploded, and aliens would have popped out. And even though the Senator’s speech still wowed the crowd, watching it from home, I could tell that the poor man was tired. Who wouldn’t be? Three stops in one day, one in the pouring rain?

That makes nine visits to Virginia, and he has one more planned on Thursday in Virginia Beach. Am I planning to go? You betcha, gee golly. I’m hoping President Clinton will be tagging along for this one since the duo is doing stops together this week. Now that would be worth waiting for.

The Big Wednesday Night Television Appearance

It seems that Barack Obama doesn’t impress everyone. Obama’s 10-year-old daughter isn’t that excited about it, so said Michelle Obama on Leno on Monday Night. Malia overheard her father talking about the thirty-minute spot and was a bit put out: “You’re going to be on all the TV? … Are you going to interrupt my TV?’” Michelle Obama recalled. “He said, ‘No, we didn’t buy time on Disney and Nick.’ And she said, ‘Oh, good.’ And she got up and walked away. She was just like, ‘Don’t mess with my TV.’”

That’s why you have children. They keep things in perspective and keep you humble, even when you are running for the highest office in the land.

More on the big show later. Peace.