THE AMERICAN WEST (mostly): Fact and Fiction (mostly fiction)

"NOBODY GETS TO BE A COWBOY FOREVER." -- Chet Rollins (Jack Palance) in MONTE WALSH (NG, 1970)

Total Pageviews

Thursday, January 2, 2014

AMERICAN RUST by Philipp Meyer

In American Rust, Philipp Meyer’s debut novel, the steel mill in the fictional town of Buell, Pennsylvania closed in 1987 and was partially dismantled ten years later. Now the mill stands like an ancient ruin that is being taken over by vines and other vegetation. The only visitors are coyotes and deer and an occasional human squatter. Buell was “a place that had recently been well-off, its downtown full of historic stone buildings, mostly boarded now.” What is true of Buell is also true of other steel mill towns located in the Mon Valley.

For a hundred years the Valley had been the center of steel production in the country, in the entire world, technically,” but globalization and automation, along with outsourcing and offshoring, have taken its toll and in the last two decades the area has lost 150,000 jobs and “most of the towns could no longer afford basic services; many no longer had any police.”

One character, a former police chief and current justice of the peace, says that “it wasn’t just that we lost all those jobs, it was because people didn’t have anything to be good at anymore….We’re trending backwards as a nation, probably for the first time in our history, and it’s not the kids with the green hair and the bones through their noses. Personally I don’t care for it, but those things are inevitable. The real problem is the average citizen does not have a job he can be good at. You lose that, you lose the country.”

Now the Valley is primarily the home of retirees who have no choice but to stay and the young who haven’t acquired the courage to leave. Two of the young people are odd-couple friends, Isaac English and Billy Poe.

Isaac English and his older sister were the two smartest kids in town, the whole Valley, probably; the sister had gone to Yale. A rising tide, Isaac had hoped, that might lift him as well.” But at age twenty, and two years out of high school, and despite an IQ of 167, Isaac still lives in Buell. He is one who wants to leave but remains to care for his father, who is an invalid as the result of a steel mill accident.

The whole town thought Billy would go to college to keep playing [foot]ball…[but] two years later here he was living in his mother’s trailer,” a double-wide that “sat at the top of a dirt road…on a large tract of woodland.” Billy turned down a scholarship to Colgate because, unlike Isaac, he can’t understand why anyone would ever want to leave Buell. He thinks this despite the fact that he is unemployed after recently being laid-off from a minimum wage job.

The world spins out of control for the two friends when, in the early stages of Isaac’s attempt to finally breakaway and head West to attend college, he and Billy become involved in a killing (Is it murder or self-defense?). The tragic event and its repercussions overwhelm the two young men and devastate them and their families.

Philipp Meyer’s second novel, The Son, which has received almost universal acclaim from critics, is on most of the “best books of the year” lists that are now being published. The critics also liked American Rust, but readers have been decidedly mixed in their reaction to it. A lot of them like it and a lot of them hate it.

Here are three primary complaints about the book: 1) there are six alternating narrators; 2) they engage in stream-of-consciousness thought and; 3) there is an open-ended conclusion that leaves many of the novel’s conflicts unresolved and its questions unanswered.

I thought Meyer was able to juggle his narrators effectively, so I didn’t find that to be a distraction. I can’t speak for others, but I rarely think in paragraphs, or even complete sentences. In fact, there isn’t a lot of punctuation in my thoughts. Therefore, I thought his usage of stream-of-consciousness helped me better understand his characters and their motivations. And let’s face it, if life is anything, it is open-ended and many conflicts do remain unresolved and many questions are never answered.

American Rust is a social protest novel that harkens back to the ‘30’s and writers such as John Steinbeck and others who championed working people and protested the economic dislocation of the day. Meyer's depiction of the economic decline that has devastated the Pennsylvania steel industry reminds me of what Richard Russo has written about similar decline in his area of upstate New York. And if one took Meyer’s characters and placed them in Mississippi, they would be very similar to characters created by the late Larry Brown.

Critics have compared Meyer to Cormac McCarthy, Ernest Hemingway, and Dennis LeHane. I even saw a headline which asked “Is Philipp Meyer the next William Faulkner?” And that was before The Son. But the answer is no, of course not, there will only be one Faulkner. But that’s certainly high praise for a debut novel and could have been the kiss of death. However, Meyer did not fall prey to the sophomore jinx. The Son has been even better received than American Rust. And I look forward to reading it.

TRUE GRIT (Paramount, 2010)

DIRECTORS: Joel & Ethan Coen;  PRODUCERS: Joel & Ethan Coen, Scott Rudin;  WRITERS: screenplay by Joel & Ethan Coen based on Charles Portis novel of same title;  CINEMATOGRAPHER: Roger Deakins

CAST: Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, Hailee Stanfeld, Barry Pepper, Dakin Matthews, Paul Rae, Domhnall Gleeson, Elizabeth Marvel, Roy Lee Jones, Ed Corbin, Leon Russom, Bruce Green

(Rather than rehashing the film’s plot, which does adhere closely to the novel, allow me to direct you to my review of the novel, which you can read here.  I also reviewed the original film and if you wish, you can read it here.)

 An off-screen Mattie Ross, now a 40-year-old spinster, sets the stage for what is to come:

People do not give it credence that a fourteen-year-old girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her father’s blood but it did not seem so strange then, although I will say it did not happen every day.  I was just fourteen years of age when a coward going by the name of Tom Chaney shot my father down in Fort Smith, Arkansas, and robbed him of his life and his horse and $150 in cash money plus two California gold pieces that he carried in his trouser band.

This passage also opens Charles Portis' novel.  It is significant that the Coens opened the film in this manner.  They are on record as saying that they did not intend to film a remake of the 1969 original.  Instead, they indicated that their goal was to film the book.  Their plans are further re-enforced by the fact that Marguerite Roberts, who wrote the screenplay for the original, received no mention in their version’s credits.

I’m not sure why the Coens shied away from the original screenplay, since it was skillfully written by Roberts.  It followed its original source much more closely than most screenplays do.  And because it does, the Coens in their efforts to, as they said, film the book means that the films share many common characteristics.

Okay, so it isn't an official remake.  Nevertheless, both films feature the same characters, much of the same dialogue, and many of the same scenes.  That sounds like a remake, doesn't it?  So, let's call it an unofficial remake and let it go at that.

"I'm a foolish old man who's been drawn into a wild goose chase by a harpie in trousers and a nincompoop."

The films do differ in some respects, of course, or else why bother with producing a second one.  For one thing, the original was a John Wayne vehicle.  Never for one moment does the viewer forget that he is the star of the film.

The remake (well, it is) is not a star vehicle.  It is more of an ensemble effort that is made possible because it does not star a legend and the fact that better actors are cast in the two most important supporting roles.  Matt Damon, as one would expect, is a big improvement over singer Glen Campbell in the role of Texas Ranger LeBoeuf.  And not only is 13-year-old Hailee Standfeld, as Mattie Ross, an improvement over 21-year-old Kim Darby, the character's part has been elevated to a position more in keeping with the novel.

the "harpie in trousers" and the "nincompoop"
Both Wayne and Jeff Bridges are very good in the role of U.S. marshal Rooster Cogburn.  But they are different Roosters.  Bridges plays it just as mean and ornery as Wayne, but he is more subdued and doesn't dominate scenes the way Wayne did in the original.  Partly that has to do with the different approaches of the two actors and partly because Bridges had better support in the two pivotal supporting roles.

The remake is an improvement in a couple of other ways as well.  The 1969 film was beautifully photographed by Lucien Ballard.  However, the snow-capped peaks and quaking aspens of the Colorado Rockies was not a good stand-in for Oklahoma.  For anyone familiar with the geography of eastern Oklahoma all that majestic scenery can be disconcerting.  I was disconcerted.  I don’t know why the Coens didn’t use Oklahoma locations, but at least the ones they chose in Texas and New Mexico look much more authentic than those featured in the original film did.

The other improvement concerns the ending of the film.  For the most part, Roberts stuck fairly close to the novel when she wrote the screenplay for the original film, but she did deviate when it came to the film’s conclusion.  It probably wasn’t her idea, but that of the producers who wanted John Wayne to ride off into the sunset in a manner in keeping with his legendary status.

The Coens stayed with the book and the way they staged it is perfect.  The beginning and the ending are bookends that serve to emphasize their great admiration for Portis’ classic novel.

I like both films.  The 1969 film, even with some of its drawbacks, is still very enjoyable.  The Coens, to their credit, have improved upon what was already a very good film.  That doesn’t always happen with remakes (see 3:10 to Yuma, for example) I hope they revisit the Western genre soon.


“TRUE GRIT seems to be an honest stab at transferring a beloved book as accurately as possible from page to screen." – Richard Corliss in Time

“Steinfeld is the heart, star and glory of TRUE GRIT.” – Richard Corliss in Time

“… justice comes swiftly but fairly, and no one ends up dead who didn’t have it coming.  It is, at bottom, an emotional, even ardent, film. – David Carr in The New York Times

“Nothing very startling happens, but the Coens have a sure hand, and Bridges, in the old John Wayne role, plays a man, not a myth; you can sense Rooster’s stink and his nasty intelligence, too.” – David Denby in The New York Times

“Roger Deakins … tops himself here, fashioning scenes that have weight and resonance.” – Leonard Maltin

“But the real reason to see this film is the work of the Coens’ regular collaborators, cinematographer Roger Deakins and composer Carter Burwell, who supply the visual and auditory landscapes that are TRUE GRIT’s most notable achievement.” – Christopher Orr in The Atlantic