Week 62: American Rust Book Review
Since his debut novel was published in 2009, Philipp Meyer has been likened to Steinbeck and Salinger, Faulkner and Hemingway. In 2010 the New Yorker rated him one of the 20 best novelists under 40. The accolades are appropriate, keeping in mind that Meyer, writing at the tail end of the Great American Dream, has a different take on what drives us to be who and what we are. I wouldn’t call him cynical, exactly, but his unsentimental clarity makes for a pretty grim read.
American Rust takes place in what used to be the industrial heartland of America. The fictional town of Buell was once a thriving Pennsylvania steel town; now, like communities throughout the northeast, its old stone houses are boarded up and abandoned, its shops are empty, its factories shut down. Many of the residents have fled, hoping to find work in other parts of the country. Those who have jobs, even minimum wage ones like those on offer at Wal-Mart, are lucky. Others live on welfare, deal drugs, or both. Still others go back to the bush, living much as hunter-gatherers did hundreds of years ago. The whole town, for the most part, is on “the other side of the tracks”.
“The work was all in the Midwest now, taking down the auto plants in Michigan and Indiana. And one day even that work would end, and there would be no record, nothing left standing, to show that anything had ever been built in America. It was going to cause big problems, he didn’t know how but he felt it. You could not have a country, not this big, that didn’t make things for itself. There would be ramifications eventually.”
These are the thoughts of Billy Poe, former high-school football star currently in jail, waiting to appear in court for a crime he didn’t commit. In a stream of consciousness style reminiscent of Faulkner, Meyer presents the narrative from several points of view, alternating between Poe, his friend, Isaac English, Isaac’s sister, Lee, Poe’s mother, Grace, and Bud Harris, the town’s police chief and Grace’s sometime boyfriend. Each of these characters, vividly drawn and intensely real, gives us insight into what happens when market forces drive a community into the dirt.
The book opens with 19-year-old Isaac heading out of town, on his way, he thinks, to California. Recently graduated from high school, Isaac is a mathematical genius and should, under normal circumstances, be studying at one of the Ivy League colleges, like his older sister, Lee. But 5 years ago his mother committed suicide, his sister left for Yale, and Isaac chose to stay home to care for his father, who is confined to a wheelchair after a workplace accident. Now Isaac is on the road, like Kerouac, with $4,000 in his pocket – stolen from his father’s desk. His plan is to ride the rails west and become a student of physics at UCLA Berkeley.
Before you start feeling sorry for his dad, you need to know that Henry English is by no means an ideal father. He treats Isaac much as he did his wife, which was not well, favouring his daughter and putting her needs and aspirations well above those of his son. And while Isaac loves his sister, he resents the fact that she was able to leave so easily while he felt compelled to stay.
On the way out of town, Isaac stops at the trailer where Poe lives with his mother, and urges his friend to come with him. The two boys were best friends in high school, although they were an unlikely combination: Isaac was small, skinny, all brains, Poe was handsome, twice the size of Isaac, and a natural athlete. A few years ago, Poe saved Isaac’s life. After his mother’s suicide Isaac went out to the frozen lake where she drowned and jumped in. Poe risked drowning himself, diving under the ice and rescuing his friend.
Now, however, Poe has given up. Having turned down offers of college football scholarships, he sees no future for himself, and lacks the ability to leave and make a go of it somewhere else. And so he lives with his mother, drinks heavily, and gets into fights.
Grudgingly, he agrees to accompany Isaac as far as the train yards. By nightfall they arrive at an abandoned car factory and decide to bed down for the night. Poe gets a fire going and they settle in, only to be interrupted by three homeless men who have made the factory their temporary home. A fight breaks out and Isaac ends up killing one of the men, a large Swede named Otto. The boys flee, leaving behind two pieces of telltale evidence: Isaac’s backpack, which he stashed in a nearby field, and Poe’s high school football jacket, which bears his name and player number. When they try to go back the next day to retrieve the jacket, they find Bud Harris and his partner, Steve Ho, waiting for them.
Harris has already found the jacket, and recognized it as belonging to Poe. He’s helped the boy before, as a favour to Grace; now, as much as he wants to avoid hurting Grace, he believes Poe, who has a history of violence, killed the Swede and will have to pay the price. He drives the boys back to town, advising them to stay inside for the next few days. “Stick around,” he says, “where I can find you.”
Isaac is sure he’ll be charged with murder. Even though it was mainly self-defence – one of the men was holding a knife to Poe’s throat – it was Isaac who threw the rock. He retrieves his pack from the field where he left it, and heads east towards Pittsburgh. In the meantime, Lee returns to Buell hoping to get her father into a care home and take Isaac out of there. She and Poe rekindle their high school sexual relationship; during a night of love-making Poe tells her it was Isaac, not him, who killed the man. He refuses, however, to tell the authorities, and when he’s arrested and put in jail he stays silent. He knows he could save himself by telling the truth, that it was Isaac who killed Otto, but he won’t.
Poe’s taken to a maximum security prison where every murderous cliché you can imagine is firmly in place. Simply staying alive means walking an impossible tightrope between rival gangs of convicts. Unwittingly, he manages to anger just about everyone in the prison, and is attacked and almost killed. He wakes up in hospital, hooked up to an IV, tubes sticking out of him, in a great deal of pain. “After a minute it occurred to him: I am alive.”
Lee, having been told the truth, is torn between her love for her brother and her moral imperative to do what is right. She is, after all, a law student. In the end she swallows her guilt, deciding to sacrifice Poe to save Isaac. Grace, who loves her son, believes she’s made all the wrong decisions. If she’d left Buell when she’d had the chance, none of this would have happened. Harris, who wants to wash his hands of the boy, is conflicted as well. He loves Grace, and knows this is going to destroy her. In the end, he makes a decision to go against everything he stands for and save her son.
Some judicious editing might not have been a bad thing. American Rust is heavy on introspection and there are times when you want the characters to stop thinking and just move on. But all that deep thinking has a purpose: Poe comes to see that he’s not the coward he thought he was. He saved Isaac once before – by keeping silent, he will save him again.
As for Isaac, after spending two weeks in the wilderness, battling the cold, near starvation, and hostile strangers, he knows he cannot allow his friend to take the fall for something he did. He makes his way back home to Buell, resolved to turn himself in and accept the consequences. But when he goes to the police station, Harris refuses to hear his confession. Before Isaac can say anything, Harris tells him that the men who witnessed the murder are dead – the implicit message being: they were bums, they won’t be missed. Poe will be set free; Isaac, who killed a man, will not have to suffer the consequences.
Harris watches Isaac leave and thinks about the fact that Poe had been stabbed and nearly died, but refused to tell on his friend. And Isaac, who might have got away scot free, came back to confess.
“Both of those boys were worth saving, he thought. That is something you wouldn’t have known.”
Yes, American Rust is “relentlessly pessimistic”, to quote one reviewer, but then so is The Grapes of Wrath. Meyer, though, has no Tom Joad in his story. The time for moral heroes has come and gone – in a deteriorating society, everything can be rationalized. Even murder.