Sunday, April 05, 2009

Book: American Rust, by Philipp Meyer (2009)

It’s been asked in the midst of this economic whatever-we’ve-calling-it-now – downturn, meltdown, apocalypse – whether novelists still possess the skills to chronicle the lives of those who fall into the cracks. Or, in some cases, began there. American Rust answers loudly in the affirmative.

Philipp Meyer’s debut is set in a dead Pennsylvania steel town and focuses on the unlikely friendship between Isaac English, local smart kid, and once-promising athlete Billy Poe. Isaac, having stolen four grand of his father’s money, has finally decided to hop a freight and light out for California. Poe agrees to accompany him as far as Pittsburgh. But before they even get that far they run afoul of some men even lower on society’s ladder. Violence breaks out, and like the real thing it’s sudden and unpredictable, with consequences for many lives.

The two leads are strong characters – Isaac, both tougher and more naïve than he thinks he is, and Poe, angry for reasons he can’t understand. But Meyer casts his nest wider, giving us other perspectives every bit as rich. The local lawman, who tried to save Poe once before. Isaac’s sister, who escaped the town but finds herself inexorably drawn back. Poe’s mother Grace, the beating heart of the book. (“I made one bad decision, but I made it every day.”)

The book’s full of sharp details that break the heart, like Grace choosing to suffer through the cold rather than install a furnace because sinking money into her trailer means that she’s given up hope of leaving it. There’s even political wisdom here for the taking. (“There’s only so good you can be about pushing a mop or emptying a bedpan ... The real problem is the average citizen does not have a job he can be good at. You lose that, you lose the country.”) And the ending is as noir as can be. American Rust is a crime novel told with Biblical force, a frontline report from the margins, and one hell of a read.