American Rust a Tough But Honest Read

By Philipp Meyer
Random House 978-0385527521
* * * *

In 1980, Emily and I drove through the British Midlands, making our way through the jobless devastation of Birmingham, Leeds, Wolverhampton, Stoke-upon-Trent, and other non-garden spots.  It was mile upon relentless mile of wasteland: abandoned mills, dire housing developments, decay, decadence, drugs, and hooliganism. It also occurred to me, and I said so at the time, that I was glimpsing America’s future. That wasn’t prescient, merely observant–deindustrialization had already begun to exact its toll, especially in places such as our birth-state of Pennsylvania. Although the term is older, the Associated Press began referring to the “Rust Belt” in 1982, and it was soon part of the everyday lexicon.

The fictional town of Buell, Pennsylvania–modeled loosely Charleroi, located on the Monongahela River 20 miles south of Pittsburgh–is the setting for Philipp Meyer’s debut novel American Rust. Although his book is character-driven, he does for the Rust Belt what Steinbeck did for the Dust Bowl. Meyer presents the “Mon Valley” as the corroded resting place of the American Dream. The Mon Valley has its wooded charms, but it’s never been synonymous with the adjective “bucolic.” But at least its towns and cities once hummed with life, courtesy of the smokestack industries (steel, coal, glass, railroads) that pumped black ash into the air and greenbacks into workers’ pockets. By the late 1980s, though, the Mon Valley looked like the British Midlands only worse. (In case you haven’t noticed, there’s not much of a social ‘safety-net’ in the USA.)

Meyer takes us inside dying blue-collar towns, the shabby streets, vacant lots, and empty red brick factories. They are places where there’s more short-fuse anger than long-term prospects. The Mon Valley is where teens huff glue, bums camp out before hopping the next freight train, and where ex-steelworkers hold down several jobs and jack deer out of season to keep food on the table. And, as several characters remark, it’s a constant reminder that this is not the way America was supposed to be.

Meyer tells his story through the eyes of six main characters. The least developed of these is Henry English, though he is a metaphor for what went wrong. Henry bought into the American Dream–literally–by buying a large house in Buell for his wife and two kids. His job disappeared and Henry went off to Ohio to keep up his payments, until that job dried up as well and an industrial accident left him an invalid. His wife died, but at least his libidinous daughter Lee got to Yale and married a rich man/boy. Left behind to tend to Henry is his son Isaac, a slight, brilliant lad of 20 who belongs in college but has few realistic chances of attending. He’s so unsophisticated that his grand life plan involves stealing cash from his old man and hopping a train to Berkeley, where he will just waltz into the University of California. His best friend, Billy Poe, is a handsome hulk and former high school jock who should have fled the Mon Valley on a football scholarship. Instead, he lives in a house trailer with his mother, Grace, and each daydream of fanciful escapes and opportunities squandered. Grace–still attractive in her 40s but weathered–is estranged from her no-account husband and has occasional flings with Harris, the local police chief and a decent guy.

The drama unfolds when Isaac decides to flee and takes Billy along with him–just for the first leg of the journey to the outskirts of town. But this is no On the Road, rather a harrowing tale involving an accidental death that looks like murder, an insider’s look at the brutality of American prisons, bouts of unrequited love and realized lust, peeks into small-town corruption, and a trip to nowhere.  American Rust is not a feel-good story, but it is one of the most brutally honest books on the shelf. It’s marked “fiction,” but tap into a few oral histories and you could change the label to “sociology.” Other than size, Buell isn’t that different from scores of other places in America: Flint, Detroit, Gary, East St. Louis, Watts, Buffalo, Allentown, Holyoke, Oakland….

Meyer isn’t always a great stylist–his depictions of intimacy seem particularly clumsy–but he’s an excellent storyteller and American Rust, for all its grit, is a surprisingly quick book to consume. It’s not easy to digest, though; it doesn’t just reveal, it rubs your face in what Jonathan Cobb and Richard Sennett called the “hidden injuries of class.” Meyer utterly demolishes the myth of America as a middle-class society and calls into question bourgeois assumptions. Many Americans think it’s fine that dirty jobs like those of the Mon Valley went away. No, it’s not. Not when there’s nothing to fill the void. Not when a kid like Billy is trapped on a dead-end street and one such as Isaac stands a better chance of being adducted by aliens than seeing the inside of a UCal classroom. Not when the black ash and greenbacks flee at the same time. Money can’t buy you happiness, but its absence sure does purchase a lot of misery.

American Rust is a tough book, but one every American should read. If America is not supposed to be this way, who made it such? Until there is culpability there is no justice, and where there is no justice, there is no hope.  --Rob Weir

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