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.