More things to admire in men than to despise

This is my review of American Rust by Philipp Meyer.

This impressive American "debut" novel must have flowered from the diverse influences of growing up with book-loving bohemian parents in a tough working-class suburb, dropping out of school to gain raw experiences but somehow getting to college, avidly reading Joyce, Faulkner and Woolf, and carrying first-hand research to the extent of riding freight trains and interviewing men on trial for murder.

Set against the backdrop of the crumbling American dream, as foreign competition knocks the heart out of once thriving steel-making towns, Meyer explores the drama of an unlikely friendship: on one hand, puny and eccentric but brilliant Isaac English, haunted by his mother's suicide and burdened by the task of caring for his cranky invalid father, on the other athletic but indolent Poe who has thrown away the chance to train as a football champion. Both share a confused desire to escape the depressed backwater of Buell, mixed with inertia and a love of the area's natural beauty. When one commits a serious crime, acting on impulse to save the life of the other, who will be blamed and with what outcomes?

After a dramatic opening, the story slips into a slow-paced cycle round the inner thoughts of six linked characters: Isaac, his favoured sister Lee who has managed to escape to Yale and a wealthy marriage, his crippled father Henry, Poe, his long-suffering mother Grace and Harris, the local police chief who fancies her, himself a survivor of the Vietnam war. Sometimes, Isaac's streams of consciousness become too obscure and tedious, the boozy sex between Grace and Harris a little repetitive, the minor scenes, as when Lee or Harris is socialising, too corny or banal. The strongest charge is that the denouement seems a little rushed and underdeveloped compared with the rest, although I liked the upbeat but open ending. Yet overall, this is gripping, with sufficient tension and unresolved drama to keep you reading in the belief that Meyer is ruthless enough to opt for tragedy, although it will never be unrelieved.

Less ambitious and "epic" than its successor "The Son", for me, "American Rust" is a technically better novel since the structure is tighter and the characters are more fully developed and therefore you care about their fate, with the possible exception of Lee who is the only one who might be regarded as successful, which perhaps is perhaps intentional on Meyer's part.

A good choice for a reading group as there is so much to discuss, it bridges the blurred gap between literary and popular fiction.

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ 5 Stars

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