Tuesday, March 02, 2010

American Rust by Philipp Meyer


American Rust starts with a killing that could be called self-defense.  The plot flows forward from this single event and remains taut until the final conclusions are reached.  The point of view bounces back and forth in stream-of-consciousness style from the two main characters, 20-year-old Isaac and 21-year-old Poe, to their family members and the police captain, Bud Harris, who is charged with cracking their case.  Isaac, a smallish, smart kid whose mother has committed suicide before the novel opens, lives with his wheelchair-bound father in southwestern Pennsylvania.  His sister, who escaped to Yale shortly after her mother's suicide, also makes an appearance about a quarter of the way through the novel.  The father's and the sister's perspectives don't add that much to the novel, but they are important in telling the story.  Poe, a former star athlete, lives with his mother, Grace, who also becomes a focus of the narration.  She becomes the wheel around which Bud Harris turns (they have an on-again, off-again relationship at the beginning of the novel).  She ultimately shifts his actions toward the unthinkable.  The setting dominates the novel -- the broken-down steel mills being reclaimed by nature, the beauty of the hills around the fictional town of Buell -- as every character takes note of the setting at various points in the novel.  There are heavy overtones of American decline -- hence the title.  The book creates many murky moral dilemmas and contains difficult, life-affirming or life-denying choices.  It earns the category of serious literature because it doesn't shy away from these painful realities.  The content of the novel is a little like John Updike's -- lots of sex, well-drawn characters who make bad decisions -- but without the comic turns.  The novel opens with quotes from two existentialist authors (Kierkegaard and Camus), so there is a little too much existential angst in the novel.  Still, the author does write a gripping tale, and I have to give him his due in drawing me in to a story that gave me plenty to chew on.
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