Review of Phillip Meyer's "American Rust"

The following review appeared in the Dallas Morning News, 1 March 2009. I liked the novel, although the misery level was rather high. I received a condescending email from presumably the author’s agent, complaining that I didn’t gush about the novel enough. That’s rather ridiculous, considering I compared Meyer to Andre Dubus and Dennis Lehane. Plus it’s a tough-guy novel, so complaining I didn’t love it enough seems rather funny. (Meyer was graduated from my alma mater, University of Texas, so I’m simpatico. I don’t blame him for the silly email, either. He probably knew nothing of it.) Three things I didn’t address in the review, or only obliquely, for lack of space: 1) One of the characters wrongly accused of murder is sent to prison when he’s merely charged with the crime, before a grand jury, trial, any of that. Does that ever happen? Usually one goes to county jail before the trial, right? 2) The character who does cause the (accidental) murder does so by throwing a ball bearing and hitting some hobo dude in the head. I’m sure that could happen, but it seems unlikely and implausible, even somewhat goofy. 3) I live part-time in Pennsylvania, and his bleak depiction of it doesn’t ring true from my experience. Still, it’s fiction, a vision of the world, and doesn’t have to be ‘realistic,’ which can be too tedious anyway.
AMERICAN RUST/By Phillipp Meyer/Spiegel & Grau; 368 pages, $24.95
Down and Out in Pennsylvania
With a title like “American Rust” you know right off the bat this is not going to be another chicklit “The Devil Wears Prada,” but rather a peek into that dark underbelly of the American Dream. And yes, it not only peeks, it wallows. Phillipp Meyer’s debut novel features two bad-luck losers fresh out of high school and headed for nowhere: Isaac English, the smart one with literary pretensions; and Billy Poe, the angry one, with ex-football star credentials. Isaac and Billy get involved in the accidental murder of a homeless thug, and the rest of the novel details how they are haunted, punished, and redeemed for this crime. It takes place in the Rust Belt fringe of southeastern Pennsylvania, and is a vision of America in decline, a wasteland populated with angry young boys leading directionless lives.
The first half of the book is a bit lopsided: the murder occurs quickly and is not particularly convincing, but after that the pace slows to establish who these people are, and what’s at stake. Billy is in love with Isaac’s sister, Lee, who has left the downtrodden town of Buell for Yale and marriage to a wealthy yuppie. Isaac is intelligent, but emotionally disturbed. He put off college to stay home with his disabled father, and is now itching to flee. Billy’s father, Virgil, is a shiftless loser, and his long-suffering mother is involved with the police chief, Bud Harris, who managed to keep Billy out of prison on an assault charge in the recent past. Harris comes across as a good man with a soft heart and a flexible sense of justice.
Once the players are established, the story picks up steam. Isaac runs away, ostensibly headed for California, but also to escape criminal charges. While Isaac hops trains as a wannabe hobo, Billy is charged with murder and sent to prison, where he immediately becomes entangled with white supremacists. Billy’s incarceration is a loyalty test: if he would only tell the truth, he would be released, but he won’t implicate his friend. His stoic refusal to snitch gives him dignity, which is what this land of “American Rust” sorely lacks.
Although press material compares the novel to the likes of John Steinbeck and Cormac McCarthy, those forbears seem rather lofty, and the novel has more in common with TV dramas like “Law and Order” or “The Wire.” The prison scenes are rather standard, but nonetheless compelling, vivid and gritty. In contemporary fiction Meyer most resembles Andre Dubus, Dennis Lehane, or Richard Price. Bleak and nasty. He describes a dilapidated world with flashes of understanding, moments of misdirected animosity, and fistfuls of energy gone wrong.

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