Thursday, April 16, 2009

American Rust by Philipp Meyer

One might think this book only refers to the decay of heavy industry in the Northeastern and North Central United States – the rust belt – but that would sell this fine debut novel short. The decaying factories, steel mills, and auto plants do have a profound presence in the novel, but the characters that populate Buell, Pennsylvania also find themselves in a state of decline. However, unlike the industrial infrastructure, the people have a streak of toughness that shows itself as loyalty, love, and courage.

The publisher’s note compares this novel to Cormac McCarthy – particularly The Road, I think – but that would be a bit of an overstatement. Nevertheless, Philipp Meyer has woven a tight, absorbing tale in American Rust, which I found difficult to put aside, even for brief moments.

The chapters alternate among six characters, although the author’s voice remains consistent throughout. All the characters spend large chunks of time ruminating on their past lives, their present actions, and future plans. Unfortunately, Meyer has the peculiar style of occasionally slipping from the third person narrator to a second person “conscience” of some of the characters. I think these passages of self-admonishment and reflection might have benefitted from the use of italics.

This example, from a chapter narrated by the town police chief, Harris, who has a crush on Grace, the mother of a young man in trouble:

“It felt different with Grace this time, he didn’t know why, it really seemed the hillbilly was no longer in the picture. The spare tire comes out. The spare tire is you. He was not sure about any of it. There were people meant to die alone, maybe he was one of them. You’re getting a little ahead of yourself, he thought.” p 237 (pp 218-219 in Advanced reading Copy)

Is Harris talking to himself? Is the third person narrator addressing the character directly? Strange.

Despite this minor annoyance, an outstanding, exciting read. 4-1/2 stars

--Chiron, 4/15/09

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