Philipp Meyer’s short story “What You Do Out Here, When You’re Alone” was a fantastic piece of fiction, and it motivated me to read his novel American Rust. While the novel started out strong, it began to slow down and stumble around fairly early. It has the makings of a captivating narrative, but Meyer never lets it go. He controls the pace to such an extent that the chapters become meaningless as nothing happens.
The novel is set in a failing mining/industrial town in Northeastern Pennsylvania. Meyer does a great job capturing and describing the town of Buell. Hulking shells of factories dominate the landscape, interspersed with boarded up shops, and cash for checks strip malls. The characters are a mix of down on their luck types who never break out of the the area, and either through love or inertia remain in Buell.
The main action in the novel is that Issac English has murdered a homeless man while running away from home with his friend Poe. Poe is a fading high school football star who is aggressive and can be out of control. On more than one occasion he’s fought and severely hurt people. Issac on the other hand is described as a genius, but so smart that sometimes the simple things throw him off. He’s stayed behind to take care of his father with whom he has a terrible relationship filled with emotional abuse and distance. The flight from home and the murder happen within in the first thirty pages. What follows is 330 pages of not much.
The other main characters are Harris (the sheriff), Lee (Issac’s smart sister who escaped to Yale and married), Grace (Poe’s semi-failure of a mother), and Henry English (Issac and Lee’s father). The chapters are titled with one of the characters name and are written in third person limited from that character’s point of view. As the murder comes to light, Poe is arrested, and Issac runs away again. Due to an on again off again relationship with Grace, Harris tries to help Poe and protect him.
The chapters can be generalized in the following.
Issac’s chapters: I’m going to show them. I’m running away. I’m “the Kid,” who’s tough and resourceful. Issac meanders through the landscape getting routinely beat up and taken advantage of before returning home.
Poe’s chapters: What’s going on? How did I get here? Why am I taking the fall for Issac’s crime? My life is full of bad decisions, and I don’t care.
Lee’s chapters: Coming home is horrible. I don’t know if I should believe Poe about Issac killing that man? I’m confused. It would all be easier if I went back to New York or Connecticut.
Harris’s chapters: I shouldn’t protect Poe, but I do. Sometimes you have to bend the law. Do I love Grace?
Grace’s chapters: I should have done more for my son. I’m a bad mother. Do I love Harris?
Henry’s chapters: What I’ve done to that boy is wrong. I’m not a great father.
It may seem flippant, but not much happens in this novel. The crime does not weigh on Issac like the Raskolnikov’s killing of the old woman in Crime and Punishment, instead Issac seems full of angst and impotence. The sections where Poe is in prison are the most interesting, but once you’ve read or seen any narrative with characters in prison, they do not feel very original.
American Rust accurately describes the depressed nature of the rust belt, but beyond that it is a novel that could work best compressed into a short story or a novella.