Wednesday, July 1, 2009

American Rust - Philipp Meyer

Philipp Meyer's debut novel and his writing have been compared to Jack Kerouac, John Steinbeck, J D Salinger and Cormac McCarthy. This is heady stuff - as is this novel.

Buell Pennsylvania is a steel town, or it was. It is now in the Rust Belt of America, the steel works have been closed and the only jobs are those involved in dismantling the mills and at WalMart - packing groceries. In a period of twenty years

'the area had lost 150,00 jobs-most of the towns could no longer afford basic services; many no longer had any police...It was like this all up and down the river and many of the young people, the way they accepted their lack of prospects, it was like watching sparks die in the night.'

Two of these young people are Isaac English and Billy Poe, high school friends who have been left behind in Buell where others their age have fled. Isaac steals $4,000 from his invalid father and plans to head west, to California to study at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. His friend Billy, a High School football star agrees to accompany him on the first leg of his journey. But when they shelter from rain in a disused mill and encounter three homeless men, Billy refuses to run and Isaac kills one of the men. It is from this morally ambiguous incident that Meyers builds and layers his novel.

The two boys panic and run instead of going to the police. Billy is eventually arrested and charged with murder. Isaac, unaware of his friends arrest, fleas as originally planned. The novel explores the consequences of the boys actions on themselves and those around them, Billy's mother Grace, Isaac's sister Lee and Bud Harris the local Chief of Police. Each chapter is narrated by a different character which allows Meyer to focus in on various aspects of the repercussions of the murder but also explore the consequences of the economic decline of Buell.

This is not just a story of a murder but an exploration of the choices we make, be they large ones such as not investing in new technology and maintenance of a mill or the relatively smaller one of not taking up employment in a city because it would mean moving your son from the school where he is on the football team. Also how people are swept aside by history, marginalised and overlooked. Meyer gives us the modern dispossessed, living in trailer parks and disused houses, the corruption of municipal politics and the barely contained violence of a maximum security prison.

Throughout 'American Rust', below the surface and waiting in the wings, is nature herself. The Mon valley where Buell is situated is a lovely verdant area and with the decline of industry and the depopulation of the towns nature is beginning to reassert itself. Deer walk down deserted streets and those people that remain are turning to almost frontier lifestyles of growing their own vegetables and hunting their own food. Is this a simpler time? The people of Buell are living lives of quiet desperation.

Meyer puts hardly a foot wrong in this novel, there are however two niggles, the lack of interest in even looking at an alternative scenario to the murder theory and whether anyone awaiting trial would be sent to a maximum security prison. These are very minor criticisms which do not detract from a novel that explores the economic and personal reality of decisions made at the highest levels of government and at the intimate and individual level.

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