American Rust, Philipp Meyer, Spiegel & Grau, 2009, 367 pp
Oh my. Oh my. This is a dark depressing novel. I was already depressed when I started it and more so when I finished. A small town near Pittsburgh, PA, in the early years of the 21st century, consists of the people who have remained after the demise of the steel industry in America. All is rundown: the people, the structures, the restaurants, even the police department. It is as though the apocalypse already happened.
Meyer's seamless conjunction of the personal, the political and the sociological does more than any documentary or series of news reports to make the effects of America's loss of manufacturing comprehensible to readers.
The protagonists, Isaac English and Billy Poe, are 20-year-olds who have missed the ring that young men must grab in order to make a life as adults. They both have their reasons, which forms the back story. Isaac has a crippled father and a mother dead by her own hand. Billy has a mother full of broken dreams and an unreliable father.
As these two young men get themselves into a world of trouble, as they each try to outrun it, the story builds with unbearable tension. About two thirds of the way through I gave up hope that any sort of redemption or happiness was possible for any single character.
I read American Rust because I have meant to read it since it came out. (Philipp Meyer has a new novel, Son, coming out later this month and I wanted to read this one first.) My father worked for US Steel all his adult life until he retired around 1980. My comfortable middle class upbringing and my inheritance were paid for by that corporation. My father's dreams were crushed by it, even though he worked in offices at headquarters in Pittsburgh and then on Wall Street in New York City. I can't ask him now because he has passed from this life, but I wonder if he took early retirement because he saw what was coming.
Another theme in American Rust is the innumerable ways that parents fail their children and are in turn disappointed by them. A hard hit for me because I am dealing with all that in my own life at this time. As painful as it was to read about, I did realize that this theme is ancient; it happens to us all. I also became aware that in times of accelerated change, the generational conflicts are magnified.
This is a novel that obliterates any boundaries between fiction for men versus fiction for women. It is not for the faint of heart, but it is for those of us who care about what is happening to our lives and our country.
(American Rust is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)