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.
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
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.