American Rust by Philipp Meyer
My rating: 1 of 5 stars
American Rust is one of the most disappointing books I’ve read this year. I carried it around many a bookshop, changing my mind about buying it at the last minute, keeping it in the back of mind as something I’d save up.
I’ve read glowing reviews of the ‘Meyer is the new Steinbeck’ type (though any “xxx is the new/this generation’s xxx” type statement makes me cringe). I wanted to read the dark, heartwrenching thriller set in a dying rural town, that I had read about. He is not, and it was not. American Rust struck me as a book by somebody who considers that everyone has a novel inside them, but doesn’t actually read.
It has a glowing review by Colm Toibin on the cover, which is somewhat irksomely returned with similarly glowing thanks on the acknowledgements page. I have read The Road and Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy, and disliked them both for what seems to me as a labouriously but poorly executed kind of writing, rather than a style in itself. American Rust falls into this same category, for me.
Isaac is the shy bookish kid from high school, and Poe is his friend the athlete, who has a thing for Isaac’s sister. A few years after high school, Isaac never went away to college like everybody expected and stayed home to look after his father. Poe never followed through on any of the athletic scholarships and lives with his mother in a trailer, in and out of trouble. They live in Buell, a small town in Pennylvania that was once centred around a steel mill. Isaac and Poe are involved in a murder, and much of the book is focussed on whether Isaac will be found responsible or whether Poe will accept responsibility.
Each chapter is from the point of view of one of the characters, which are either trains of thought or bland recitations of and then I did this, and then I did that, to push the plot along. Cheap and lazy characterisation: show, don’t tell! Rather than providing real insight into the makeup or of a character, this served to hollow them. They are jumpy, hard to read, and peppered with strings of what I’m sure were meant to be gems of insight and profundity, but read as contrived. There are a lot of run on sentences that are at best unnecessary, and a lack of grammar which is painstaking to read and serves no real purpose. When done well, this can convey a sense of urgency and encourage a reader to read in a certain rhythm – here, there was neither structure nor need.
I failed to feel anything toward Pennsylvania, with the death of the American dream, small and dying town kind of ‘themes’ seeming more of a setting for the sake of it than anything else. The motivations of the characters were unclear or unbelievable, because the characters were never really developed. I feel as though they’re very real in Meyer’s head, but something was lost in the translation to text, and life was never fully breathed into them. I was unable to identify with any characters, or care about them at all, even at the very end.
The pace and timing seemed wrong, with little time elapsing between Isaac when we meet him, and the baby-vagrant Isaac that he somehow turns into, some days later. It feels like we’re playing into his runaway fantasy, but I could never work out whether I was meant to take him seriously, or look down my nose at him. Poe, Harris the cop, and Isaac’s sister, Lee, are little more than caricatures.
Structurally, the book has been divided into six books, with chapters that shorten as the book progresses. This is distracting, but thankfully allowed me to speed through the last 30 or so pages. If it weren’t for my pathological necessity to finish every book I start, I would have put it down halfway through. Less, if I’d decided not to soldier on, convinced that it would turn or start to pull me in at some point.
That said, it does have a nice cover..
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