Not unlike a Springsteen song, Philipp Meyer’s story is a raw and unvarnished view of the decline of the Northeastern industrial belt and the sad lives of the people trapped there. Each new page finds someone looking out over what were once prosperous and vital communities, commenting on dilapidated buildings and boarded up businesses and the movement of everything back towards nature. Even the characters themselves reflect the decomposition and desperation of their surroundings, either in their physical or emotional make up.
All of this, the characters and the communities, are described in simple, pared down prose. At times, Meyer’s own writing seems to break down itself, as he resorts to short bursts of emotionally charged, pared down phrases. All in all, the novel is a battering and realistic story. Indeed, in American Rust, Meyer has created a novel that could easily be included with some of America’s greatest realist literature, right along with the works of Mark Twain or Jack London.
Yet, in the midst of this stripped bare and raw tale, Meyer sprinkles in small items of patent fantasy. Not the kind of fantasy that involves elves and magic, but unrealistic, romantic fantasy. For instance, the bad people in the story are completely bad, completely devoid of any redeeming qualities. In this case, most of the bad people are either homeless men or disaffected youth. But anytime one of the stories ‘heroes’ comes across one of these evil doers, there is purposeless violence.
Another example can be found in the lives of the ‘heroes’ of the story. Certainly humans are all a bundle of contradiction and incongruity. But Meyer has penned a trailer bound woman who is caught up in a deadened marriage with an alcoholic and is mother to an anger riddled and aimless son, yet still capable of managing a gourmet meal in the broken down kitchen. Her son, who is incapable of controling his temper or his urge towards violence, selflessly sacrifices himself in an act of honor that would be a stretch for the most romantic of characters. His best friend, a 100 pound weakling who has never been much of anything but a target of ridicule, possesses a genius IQ.
These elements of romantic fantasy laid over Meyer’s dark realism mix to bring a point home; a point that didn’t dawn on me until I recently heard Springsteen’s “Reason to Believe” on the radio. Springsteen encapsulated what I found to be Meyer’s central theme in the chorus of the tune, “Still at the end of every day, people find a reason to believe.” The people populating Meyer’s story seem to be capable of finding hope in themselves and in others which transcends the decay of their community and their own lives. Despite their social standing and deepest flaws, they are capabe of acts of honor and faith much greater than themselves.
American Rust is a good read, especially given that it represents a debut for this writer. The book grew on me and became more clear after I put it down. Based on Meyer’s writing and life experience, detailed in the book’s jacket materials, we should expect more novels from him in the future.
Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Spiegel & Grau. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.