American Rust by Phillip Meyer is the kind of book that made me want to know more about the author, and so I was pleased to find the interview that was included in the Reader’s Guide. This is a novel that could have been great. When I began reading, I felt that I was in the hands of a master (remarkable for a first novel). I could just relax because it takes a masterful book to overcome my habit of analyzing technique. So I snuggled into the couch, tension leaving my shoulders, and settled in for a great read.
That feeling diminished midway through the book as I began to notice the writing instead of being swept along, and the voices weren’t always as distinctive as they had been. I wondered if another draft was needed or a more insistent (or less?) editor. Still, it was a very good book, and I’m interested in what Meyer will do next.
American Rust takes place in the rust belt a few hours from Pittsburgh. I had no idea, until I read this book, how bucolic that area is. I always imagined it as, well, rusty.
In the distance most of the hillsides were nearly black but there were a few patches of errant light where the land shone a bright green. (p 60)
The field descended gradually to a stream and then the land went uphill again, a hundred different types of green, the pale new grass and new buds on the oaks and darkness of the pine tree needles, the hemlocks…You called it all green but that was not correct, there should have been different words, hundreds of them. (p93)
The story is told from a number of points of view in a stream of consciousness that owes something to the lineage of Impressionist writers like Ford Maddox Ford. I saw, from looking at reviews in Goodreads, that some readers found that difficult to connect with, but for me, it was successful (for the most part) and deeply engaging. I was gripped and didn’t want to put the book down. The settings were vivid and convincing, the small dying town, the rural surroundings, the nearest prison, and the social and psychological questions these settings provoke.
The story is naturally a gripping one, because it is about the consequences of an unplanned murder. Most closely connected to the murder are two unlikely friends: the high school genius and the high school’s top jock, who didn’t live up to their promise after graduation. In their early 20’s both young men are stuck by character and circumstance in a dying town. The other voices in the novel are people connected to these boys: a middle-aged mother, her lover who is the local chief of police, the other boy’s sister and his father (whose voice surprisingly comes in late in the book).
Although there are two female voices in the novel, this is a story mainly about men, male violence and male self-sacrifice. Do you remember the O’Henry story (I think it was called “The Gift”) about the young wife who sells her hair to buy her husband a watch fob while the husband is selling his watch to buy his wife a comb? This novel seemed to me a grimmer, darker take on this archetype. Meyer’s male characters find themselves capable of both inflicting physical harm and of giving up their own body in sacrifice for love and friendship. But as each sacrifices himself for another, without knowing the sacrifice the other is making for him, the story seems to move inexorably toward a tragedy where everyone is destroyed.
And then it doesn’t. At the 11th hour there is a sharp turn, not toward a happy ending, but an avoidance of total tragedy. My main quibble with the novel is that this feels abrupt and not quite true to the rest. Perhaps the novel should have ended at an earlier point if Meyer wanted to go for ambiguity, or go on for another 50 pages and play out the tragedy.
Having said that, I still think this is a book I’d love you to read because he strives for greatness and it’s his first novel. Even if he didn’t quite get there, it was worth the reading and worth the pleasure of thinking about the novel, his themes, his characterization and his style.