AMERICAN RUST by Philipp Meyer – Review
I bought a copy of Philipp Meyer’s The Son due to the buzz about this novel and also because it is set in Texas (my new home as of five years ago). Alexandra Alter of the Wall Street Journal noted that Meyer did extensive, somewhat obsessive research for the novel, an effort that was made easier by his own relocation to Texas. Since Alter also pointed out that critics have compared his debut novel, American Rust (2009), “with works by literary heavyweights such as William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck and Cormac McCarthy,” I decided to read it before tackling The Son, an historical novel deemed “masterful” by the New York Times Book Review and “the stuff of Great American Literature” by Publishers Weekly. This decision led one of those “can’t put it down” experiences.
Notwithstanding these accolades, Meyer’s path to his current literary prominence was not quick, smooth, or easy. He was born in New York City in 1974, but grew up in the Hampden area of Baltimore (the setting for many of John Waters’ films, according to Wikipedia), where he received a public school education until age 16, when he dropped out of high school. Subsequently he earned a G.E.D. while working as bicycle mechanic and volunteering at the Shock Trauma Center at the University of Maryland Medical Center. After taking college courses at a Baltimore-area college, he applied as a transfer student to many prestigious universities, ultimately gaining acceptance to Cornell.
While an undergraduate in Ithaca, he write his first novel, a six-hundred page effort that he later called “self-indulgent undergrad nonsense.” Working as a derivatives trader at UBS in New York, a position he took after graduation in order to pay off his student debt, he continued writing in his spare moments. He finished and then discarded his second novel. He quit his Wall Street job in order to devote himself full-time to writing, which enabled him to complete a third novel that he unsuccessfully shopped to various agents and publishers. Running out of the financial means to continue living in Manhattan, he moved back to Baltimore, where he lived with his parents while writing and earning money doing construction work and driving ambulances. Although he published some short fiction during this period, he was making alternative career plans when he was accepted to the M.F.A. program at the Michener Center for Writers at University of Texas at Austin.
Meyer’s fourth novel, American Rust, was the first to be accepted for publication. Conceived and largely written while a Fellow at the Michener Center, the book tells the story of a test of loyalty between two unlikely friends living a Pennsylvania mill town whose middle-class population has been socially and economically ravaged by the retreat of the steel industry. Here Meyer draws on and displaces his own experience; the biography page on his website describes his boyhood neighborhood of Hampden as having been “hit hard by the collapse of various heavy industries, and crime and unemployment were high.”
Isaac is a bookish, introverted, and socially awkward young man who dreams of becoming an astrophysicist, but who also has done nothing to pursue this goal because of guilt over his father’s disability (due to a workplace injury sustained while working in the steel industry) and anger over his mother’s suicide. These family disasters had the opposite effect on his older sister, who left town, attended Yale, and married into a wealthy family.
By contrast, Billy is a devil-may-care extrovert, a high-school football star whose impulsivity, aggressiveness, and short temper have kept him in trouble with the law rather than playing football at the college level, despite athletic scholarship offers. Like Isaac’s, his family has been fragmented by his parents’ problems — in Billy’s case, his father’s aimlessness and infidelity. His mother works to support herself and her son despite suffering from her own work-related condition. She has an on-again, off-again relationship with the local police chief, who once used his political connections to save Billy from the legal consequences of a fight which left his opponent with a traumatic brain injury. Billy has his own intermittent relationship with Isaac’s sister, although this has been dormant since her recent marriage.
Both Isaac and Billy are recent high-school graduates whose future potential is going to waste in the post-industrial miasma of their hometown’s decline. They share anger at their families, their hometown, and the loss of a future that seemed bright when they were children. Ironically, it is Isaac who decides to leave town to chase his dreams. Billy agrees to accompany him on the first leg of the journey, but is not yet willing to sever ties with his past. What occurs when Isaac intervenes to rescue Billy from the results of his irritable pugnacity is the spark that ignites the rapidly rising action of American Rust‘s compelling plot.