Saturday, September 26, 2009

Review: American Rust

Philipp Meyer deserves praise for his debut novel, American Rust. The writing is excellent – evocative of Dreiser, Farrell, and other masters of American realism to whom he has been compared.

Also, Meyer accomplishes at least two of his goals. For one, he captures the blighted spirit of the depressed rust belt town of Buell and its desolate citizenry. Isaac English is a 20-year-old genius who gave up college plans to care for his wheelchair-bound father, crippled in a steel mill explosion shortly before Isaac’s mother killed herself. A violent altercation with three homeless men pulls Isaac, his best friend Billy Poe, and their families into the grinding gears of desperate circumstances.

For another, he creates definite voices for each of the six main characters who present the story from their own points of view. Dividing narrative duty among multiple characters is tricky. So often, especially with a new author, the voices become muddied and the personalities intermingled. Meyer’s characters maintain their individuality throughout. But there are two fundamental flaws in American Rust. First, Meyer only partially succeeds in keeping the story in the fascinating gray area of moral ambiguity. He gets credit for tackling the big question of when a homicide might be morally justified. There are only a few ways to handle this theme:
  • There is the traditional Crime and Punishment method found in Dostoevsky’s classic – and in American classics like Native Son and An American Tragedy – where a crime is certainly committed and justice, while not speedy in any of those examples, is certain.
  • Then there is the justifiable homicide – self defense or rescue – that wraps up so many mysteries and adventure novels, but is not particularly interesting for launching a story.
  • And, finally, there is the most interesting method, which is to make the killing morally ambiguous. Was it justified? Was it an accident? Or was it a crime? For example, Annie Proulx sticks to this fertile middle ground in her fascinating first novel, Postcards.
Meyer’s problem lies in reaching and then staying in this middle ground of moral ambiguity. The “crime” as committed appears patently justifiable. Meyer pulls his punches when it comes to making his two young heroes possibly bad people, so it is not the killing itself that is morally questionable. Instead, it is the boys’ subsequent cover up and other poor decisions that get them into a legal bind and moral morass. This extra step in reaching the moral gray area distracts from the story.

But it is the ending that is jarringly disappointing. After struggling to drag the story into the moral middle ground, Meyer pulls it way over the line into cold-blooded criminal territory for the finale. This “crime pays” (at least in the short run) ending feels like a cop out after watching the characters grappling with moral conundrums for most of the book.

Which leads to the second major problem, which is that all six of the main characters are martyrs. Each and every one of these people is willing to give up education, careers, and personal happiness; stay in an unhappy marriage, leave a happy marriage, or forgo marriage altogether; risk injury or death; injure others; and even kill others or themselves – all for their son or brother or father or lover. None are motivated by anything but the desire to sacrifice themselves for a loved one. Self interest, or even self preservation, does not come into play. Moral codes and legal systems do not affect decisions. While each character speaks with an individual voice, they are all motivated by the same, one-dimensional force. But while one martyr might be sympathetic, an entire cast of martyrs is tedious.

Because of these cracks in its foundation, American Rust is not the next Great American Novel. But Meyer is definitely an up-and-comer. i

The Bluestocking Society
Word Lily
Devourer of Books
William J. Cobb

(Many people have reviewed this book. If you would like your review listed here, please leave a comment with a link and I will add it.)

NOTE American Rust was one of my choices for the Colorful Reading Challenge and another of the books I can scratch off my LibraryThing Early Reviewer guilt list.


  1. I agree. He does some things right, but it was ultimately a negative for me. Here's my review:

  2. Fantastic review! I definitely agree. You're more than welcome to link to this or any other of my reviews.

  3. Thanks ladies! I added the links to your reviews, which are both very good.

  4. First off, I'll be glad to link your blog to mine and vice versa: I'm new to the whole shebang but will get it done.
    I'm glad to talk about Meyer's "American Rust": After my rather kind but not wholly convinced review of this book appeared in the Dallas Morning News, a person who seems to be Meyer's agent wrote me a nasty email, implying that I didn't love/gush about the book enough. Meanwhile I regret being too kind about a couple wrinkles in the plotline: I never believed the murder (he throws a ball bearing that happens to hit the hobo in the head so directly it kills him? I guess that could happen, but it's really an improbably crime that matches the one character trait (this guy can throw!) that would make him in any way a murderer, and 2) the prison scenes are downright hokey and don't fit the character's status as charged with a crime, not convicted. I liked much of the book, and overlooked these flaws: But push comes to shove, I regret, if anything, being "too nice."

  5. WJC --

    Your comment is pretty funny. I guess there are risks associated with actually publishing book reviews that I don't face here in the relative obscurity of the blogosphere!

    I didn't even get into the details of what irked me about American Rust, but throwing a person who was not convicted of a crime into prison was high on the list!

  6. This book caught my attention via someone else's review a while back, but then I forgot about it - thanks for reminding me!

    And I chuckled over your comment about your LT ER "guilt list." My big reading project over the last few weeks has been dealing with the very same thing - I only owe them one review now.

  7. This is actually very interesting for me to read, namely because I really did enjoy "American Rust" the first time I read it. Obviously, upon second reading I noticed little things that bothered me a whole lot more (your point about how everyone ends up a martyr, for instance) and yet I still left the book with a wholly positive feeling.

    I think the reason I liked this book more than many others is because I didn't mind the downer aspect at all (and I can often forgive authors for certain far-off aspects, assuming they're well-done). You yourself have mentioned that the grimness led to difficult reading and a major sentiment like that can certainly emphasize other negative points that might otherwise go unnoticed. To be perfectly honest, I get all your shots against the book. I may not agree with all of them (I didn't think the ending was as much a cop out as a sneaky maneuver - I felt like the ending led to exactly the moral ambiguity the characters struggled with throughout the book), but I understand completely how someone might not like this book as much as I do (or at all).

    Having said all that, I really do think this is an excellent review. The next time I read "American Rust", I'll probably look at it a lot more critically (but I still suspect I'll still like it quite a bit...). Thank you for this. It was most interesting to think about.

  8. Florinda -- I am jealous that you are down to one LT ER book. I have a couple that have been languishing on my shelf for months and months. I want to get to them and then give myself a break for a while!

    Anonymous Child -- Thank you for the thoughtful comments. You must really like AR is you have read it twice and are contemplating a third read!

    Yes, you are right that my distaste for the subject matter may have made me hypercritical of the book. Although my distaste was not based on the general grim nature of the book -- I don't knock depressing books in general, see here and here, for example. It's just that the the toils and trouble of 20 year old men is near the bottom of my interest list. I just didn't care for Isaac or Billy, so their idiotic mistakes loomed large.


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