Wednesday, April 15, 2009
American Rust by Philipp Meyer (Spiegel & Grau, ISBN 9780385527514)
Rural Pennsylvania is dotted with these small, dying towns. Once the home to a thriving mill or plant, the residents find themselves left behind, the plants closed, the jobs moved off to distant, cheaper places. But the people stay, many of the people stay, as if they too are effected by the rust that is slowly eating away the hulking buildings of the once prosperous business. The people stay, taking minimum wage jobs or part time jobs, getting further and further in debt, walking away from houses they can't pay the mortgage on and no one wants to buy. Not a cheery situation.
American Rust is set in such a town, Buell, Pennsylvania, set on the edge of the Monongahela River, south of Pittsburgh. Once home to a thriving steel mill, it is now a place where the great paying job are only a memory and the future does not look too great. And it is there that we first meet two of out central characters, Isaac English and his best friend Billy Poe. They seem unlikely friends, Isaac always the smartest kid in school, a genius in fact, who has stayed around town caring for his crippled father; Billy, the former star football play on the high school team, who stayed around town to...do nothing. But now both in their early 20's, Isaac has planned his escape. He has stolen $4000 from his father, and plans to hitch a ride on the trains that still travel through the area, make his way to California, and enter college to study astrophysics.
But before they even reach the town limits, someone ends up killed, arguably in self defense, and a whole set of actions is set in motion with the rest of our cast. There is Billy's mother Grace, living in a trailer she can't afford to heat, her hands crippled by arthritis, but unwilling to totally leave her drunken, cheating husband. There is her on and off again boyfriend, Sheriff Harris. On Isaac's side there is his father, confined to a wheelchair years ago from an industrial accident and the one person that seems to have escaped Buell, his sister Lee, who went off to Yale on a scholarship and married into a wealthy family. But even she is cheating on a husband she doesn't love during her visit home. Yes, it is all pretty bleak.
But that is not why I did not like this book...and I can't say that I liked it. Heck, I have read any number of recent Canadian novels, which have to be some on the bleakest stuff out there. No, and it is not even what I found to be the author's rather annoying writing style, part stream of consciousness, told in short chapters from all the various character's point of view, yet oddly the same, with missing punctuation and odd sentence structure. It is not the repetition of the same ideas, voiced over and over by different people, to the point that I had to on several occasions go back to the beginning of the chapter to remind myself again of who was talking. I will not even mention Isaac'a habit of referring to himself in the third person, as the Boy.
And it is not that he doesn't capture a certain reality. I know a lot of places like this in Pennsylvania, little places, set in the middle of often very beautiful scenery, that have seen better days, as Grace relates at one point.
“At the top of the hill was a big vista, the whole valley was green and full looking, the gorge, the river cutting between sheer cliffs. She stood a while longer and watched long tow of barges, a dozen or fourteen of them, pass under the tall bridges that spanned the gorge. It was a beautiful place to live. But that did not put any more money in her pockets...”
I know those towns. In fact substitute north eastern Pa for western and substitute closed coal mines for closed steel mills and it is the town my maternal grandparents were from. The town they left for more opportunities, but the town other family members remained in, as did their offspring, for reasons I could never understand.
No, what I really disliked, something that I hate in books and movies alike, that for me is a deal breaker, is that the characters acted stupidly. Not just the one bad decision that started the whole process, but stupid decision after stupid decision after stupid, senseless decision to the very end of the book. I hate to shout at the characters about what they are doing. They never seem to hear me and they never do what I say.
As an example, let's look at Isaac. We are told again and again he is a genius. So I am a genius, with no money, and I am looking for a way out of this dead end. Surely, he could get a scholarship as his sister did. Arrangements could be made to care for his father. But no, Isaac, a self professed 100 lb. weakling decides to ride the rails with a bunch of meth heads and thieves and other questionable sorts, and with a pocket full of cash no less. I guess he couldn't just buy a bus ticket and get there in a couple of days? And then there is the idea that these people are somehow trapped, that they have no options. But they all do. Billy was offered several football scholarships..but instead sits in his underwear, drinking beer outside his mother's double wide. And his mother was offered a good job in Philadelphia, where she could have finished the degree she says that she wants so much...but she turned it down.
A lot of drinking, a good bit of sleeping around, a couple of people that without doubt could use a visit to the mental health clinic..and a lot of very bad, stupid, senseless decisions.
Sorry, I found little I liked here.
Now, as is sometimes the case, as I look around at other reviews, I seem to be holding a minority opinion. I am not the lone dissenter out there, but there are many 4 and even 5 stars reviews that make comparisons to Cormac McCarthy, to Steinbeck and Faulkner. No...for me there is no real comparison and while I held in there to the end, this is a book that fell far short of my hopeful expectations. In my opinion, if you want a rather bleak, depressing, hopeless story, full of people making bad decisions, you may love this book.
For some other opinions....
The Book Lady's Blog
Devourer of Books
Cheryl's Book Nook
The Bluestocking Society