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)

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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.

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