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.

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