Monday, January 24, 2011
American Rust by Philipp Meyer (+)
American Rust by Philipp Meyer will likely be shelved with the Literary Fiction in your local Barn o' Novels. I came across it in the latest edition of 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. This seems to give the book more credence on its Literary-label. It has been compared to Faulkner, Joyce, Hemingway, and McCarthy. I found it most resembled Faulkner (what I know of Faulkner). I also found it to be genre fiction...and literary fiction. But then I find noir to be very literary. Sue me.
The story is set in the dying Pennsylvania rust belt, and delves into the minds, in a stream of conscious Faulner-esque way, of six characters residing there:
Isaac English- a 20 year-old,genius trapped in town caring for his ailing father.
Billy Poe- a 20 year-old, former jock, whose fists are always getting him in trouble.
Bud Harris- the chief of police, who always stick his neck out for Poe, because he is in love with Poe's mother.
Grace Poe- Billy Poe's mother, who can't decide between Bud or Billy's father
Lee English- Isaac's sister, she escaped the valley to graduate from Yale, and is now married to money,though she loves Billy
Henry English- Lee and Isaac's crippled father
The story is simple. Isaac and Billy stumble into trouble with some derelicts as Isaac is heading out of town for good. Billy gets into one of his typical fisticuffs with the bums, and Isaac saves Billy from certain doom, when he accidentally kills one of the bums. The boys 'escape', but find themselves in a greater hell. And this is why American Rust is noir.
Isaac ends up on the road as he always planned. Billy ends up in jail and won't talk in an effort to protect Isaac. And Bud Harris becomes a main character in the narrative at this point as he wrestles with what to do about Billy in this case. All of the characters are corrupted and destroyed in one manner or another by their decisions. It is the psychology behind these decisions, and how each of the characters respond to their descent down this downward spiral that makes American Rust such a fascinating read. The stream of conscious style and narrative from six points of view worked spectacular in this regards.
If there is a weakness in the novel it's that sometimes with all characters narrating in a stream of conscious, there is a "sameness" to their voices. For me, this was mostly with the voices of Poe and Isaac. In my copy of the book, there is Q&A with the Author at the back and he claims that Isaac's and Poe's streams are distinct in that Isaac's mind works more linear, and Poe's more circular -- he goes round and round the issue before settling on a decision. I didn't catch this, but it might be interesting to consider if I ever re-read the book.
In the end, I loved American Rust. The plus sign in this review's title is a measure of its 'kick-assness'.