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Review: American Rust, Philipp Meyer

In a naturally beautiful town in Pennyslvania, the steel industry has fallen.  Factories are abandoned everywhere and jobs are scarce, providing only minimum wage in a place which was once booming with unions and families.  Many people have moved on.  For the ones that stay, things aren’t so easy.  Enter Isaac English and Billy Poe, who both nearly escaped but then chose to stay in their unhappy, small-town poor lives.  Both harbor hopes of escape despite doing nothing to act on them, until one evening when violence changes everything.

I’ve seen this compared elsewhere to The Grapes of Wrath, and while I’m not sure this guy is going to be the next Steinbeck, I do think the comparison is valid.  This is a picture of an economy falling down, with people trapped in lives that no longer function the way they’re supposed to.  Rusting factories feature prominently in the text and are foci for major plot points.  It’s very easy to see how the loss of American industry deeply affects those who rely on it most and what those same blue-collar workers now have to do just to support their families.

The narrative is split between several characters – Isaac, his sister Lee, his father Henry, Billy Poe, his mother Grace, and the policeman Bud Harris.  I didn’t realize that at first, but did not find it disorienting as I sometimes do.  Each character had their own voice, so to speak, despite the novel being in 3rd person, and you could tell whose head you’d landed in without looking at chapter headings.  (I almost never look at chapter headings.  I have no idea if that’s weird, but I never know what chapter I’m on.  I always know what page I’m on, though.)  Some of the chapters are extremely introspective and you can almost tell the education level of the characters by how they’re thinking.  Thoughts in real life almost never come in complete sentences and I really enjoy how Meyer moves from subject to subject so abruptly, almost like Virginia Woolf in Mrs Dalloway but without the connections between people that Woolf excels at there.  It’s definitely stream of thought, but usually in a way that is easily followed, with sequences of proper well-constructed prose to balance out the novel and keep it from being too experimental.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book.  I felt that it elucidated the difficult situation going on in many of our old industry towns and as such is a really valuable insight into a part of society that no one cares to think about these days.  It forces us to think about the consequences of moving jobs overseas and leaving many Americans without a living wage.  This is the best kind of fiction, to my mind; it is not only a deep and significant story but it also reveals an aspect of our country  that is perhaps not politically correct to express otherwise.  I highly recommend it and I do suspect that it may become a classic in its own time given what a picture it is of that rusting world.

Buy American Rust on Amazon.

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