Saturday, March 14, 2009

American Rust, by Philipp Meyer

Isaac English and Billy Poe are now twenty years old and living in the same depressed Pennsylvania steel town where they'd grown up and attended high school, and this is sad. Sad, because Billy should have taken that football scholarship and headed out of there, sad, because Isaac had enough brains to get into any school, and an older sister at Yale who wanted to help him get out of town. So, why are they still in Buell? Billy suffers from inertia and low self-esteem, while Isaac is hesitant to leave his ailing father alone, but is also emotionally damaged by his mother's suicide, which happened just before his sister left for college.

However, at this point, Isaac has had enough, bored to the core, and beginning to resent sticking around for a father who shows no sign of appreciation for him. As he and Billy are walking through the woods one day, he tries to persuade his bigger friend to hit the road with him and head on out to California, where Isaac dreams of attending school. In fact, Isaac is packed and ready to go, plotting to jump a train, hobo-style. When it starts raining, they pause in an old steel plant outside the woods.

Unfortunately, they are not there for long when three other men appear and belligerently declare this their territory. Isaac senses trouble right away, and tries to get his friend to leave, but Billy is quick-tempered and has never walked away from a fight. The one hundred and fifteen pound Isaac leaves the shelter and waits in anguish for Billy to exit in his own way, but after what seems like forever, Isaac goes back for his friend to find that one of the men has a knife to Billy's throat while another is threatening to do something else to him. Isaac acts quickly: his picks up a compact, heavy bearing, and throws it as hard as he can at the man who is not holding Billy. As that man falls and the others react, they escape.

It is obvious to both of them that the impact of Isaac's bearing has killed the thug. If Isaac and Billy had only gone to the police at this point, there would be no story. Unfortunately, they are both too scared to have any common sense at all. So, Isaac does take off, and then Billy winds up being arrested, and they are both in for some very, very bad experiences.

Philipp Meyer does an excellent job of conjuring the mood of a depressed area and inspiring sympathy for its inhabitants, but I felt very frustrated during most of the story. I liked most of the characters: Isaac English, Billy Poe, Poe's mother Grace, and Harris, the chief of police in this small town. Every distastous life decision these people make is out of loyalty and love for someone else, but it turns out to be mostly in vain. The novel doesn't come to an end as much as a time to stop telling the story, but we know that both Billy and Isaac, who finally hitches a ride back to Buell to turn himself in, will be freed from legal consequences. It doesn't happen the way it should have, however, and the fallout is tremendous.

I admire much about American Rust, notably the portrayal of the moral angst inherent in sorting out whether or not one has done the right thing. Am I a good person? All of Meyer's main characters ponder this question in different and interesting ways. However, I cannot say that I enjoyed reading this novel, and I would be surprised if American Rust turns into a best-selling book. It took me about one hundred pages to really get into the story, and then everything seemed to happen in slow motion. While it is necessary to detail the horror Billy suffers in prison and equally realistic that the slight Isaac would be beaten up and robbed while traveling alone, it was a grueling read. I knew Isaac was going to come to his senses and go back to Harris, even though he didn't know Billy was in trouble, and so all of this seemed like protracted pain. Philipp Meyer has a writing style that reminds me somewhat of Cormac McCarthy, which seems ironic to me because the only McCarthy novel I read had a plot that moved along very rapidly.
In conclusion, I think American Rust has many good points and that Philipp Meyer is talented, but this first book is not paced well enough to become a best seller.
It's always interesting to me to read other people's reviews after I've written mine. It appears that most readers over at LibraryThing liked this novel more than I did, though I'm not the only one who found it slow and too depressing.
p.s. Is anyone else having trouble with paragraph spacing on blogger?


Nessa said...

We have nails like that, from the PA rail bed where my grandfather once worked.

I wish I had more time to read all of these wonderful books.

Nessa said...

And yeah, it seems to be acting up.