American Rust: A Novel by Philipp Meyer (Spiegel & Grau, February 24, 2009), 384 pages
Set in a beautiful but economically devastated Pennsylvania steel town, American Rust is a novel of the lost American dream and the desperation — as well as the acts of friendship, loyalty, and love — that arise from its loss. From local bars to trainyards to prison, it is the story of two young men, bound to the town by family, responsibility, inertia, and the beauty around them, who dream of a future beyond the factories and abandoned homes.
Left alone to care for his aging father after his mother commits suicide and his sister escapes to Yale, Isaac English longs for a life beyond his hometown. But when he finally sets out to leave for good, accompanied by his temperamental best friend, former high school football star Billy Poe, they are caught up in a terrible act of violence that changes their lives forever.
In the first chapter, I was excited about this book. Kind of a modern-day Depression tale. I’ve been really interested in Depression-era stories for about the last year, so that was thrilling to me. Aspects of the book seemed to kind of flow into everyday philosophical conversations with friends. But then the narrative shifted. Or, rather, it heaped on other aims.
At one point, pretty early on, I felt that Meyer was trying too hard with this debut. The chapters are written from the perspectives of the various characters, and the writing style changes from one to the next. This is nice, but there are some perspectives I didn’t really appreciate, especially early on. Also, at some points, the stream-of-consciousness run-on sentences get distracting.
American Rust is tragic, dark. On some level it’s a study in relative morality (This is the best part, for me, although it’s still sad.). It is crass. The book has lots of sex (and it’s never a married couple engaging).
This book didn’t have lessons or answers for the modern reader that I was hoping for. Instead, it had bad choice after bad choice after bad choice.
The author’s website.