AMERICAN RUST by Philipp Meyer (Pocket Books, 2010)

Philipp Meyer is routinely likened to the blood and dust writers like Steinbeck and Cormac McCarthy but the Baltimore-based author actually cites his own influences as Virginia Woolf, James Joyce and James Kelman.

A point of connection between these British authors is that they all like to get inside the heads of their characters and that’s just what Meyer seeks to do in his debut novel. The story may begin like a state of the nation saga but evolves into a series of psychological portraits criss-crossing between two generations.

The two protagonists are men in their early 20s – Isaac English and Billy Poe. Isaac is academically gifted while Poe is a talented American football player. Their lives should be full of promise but are blighted by their own aimlessness and, more significantly, by a botched act of self-defence which gets treated as first degree murder. Poe takes the fall for the ‘crime’ while Isaac refuses to be swayed from hitting the road in some Kerouac style fantasy of being the “Duke of all hoboes”.

That each fails to make full use of their talents is not wholly down to their surroundings. The closure of the steelworks in their home town of Bueli, Fayette County, Pennsylvania is a disaster for a once thriving community but then again these two don’t seem to be cut out to be manual labourers anyway.

While on the one hand the story can be read as, in Meyer’s words, “the ugly reverse of the American dream” , the truth is that these two  drifters would probably struggle to fit it anywhere.

This doesn’t stop the writer from representing the defunct furnaces as a metaphor for blighted hopes – “In the end it was rust. That was what defined this place”. He also explains how such factory closures have grave consequences for America as a whole : “The real problem is the average citizen does not have a job he can be good at. You lose that, you lose the country”.

I kept forgetting that the story was set in the present day, partly as it seems like a land that technology forgot and also because there are so few references to current affairs. When Isaac’s father talks about some speech of Hilary Clinton he has seen on TV it comes as a shock.

Meyer chooses the bold narrative device of constantly switching perspective between six main characters. The other four are Harris (a grizzled local police chief), Grace (Poe’s doting Mom), Lee (Isaac’s smart and sassy sister) and Isaac’s disabled father, Henry.

These chapters therefore alternate between the voice of a omiscient author and stream of consciousness auto-reflections. As the plot gathers pace, the rigidity of this structure soon becomes irritating as it means that there’s not the flow or suspense that Meyer intends. Long sections of Poe’s experiences in prison really belong in another novel. It all winds up much like Isaac’s life: “There was nowhere he was going and it no longer mattered where he’d been”.

American Rust is not the masterpiece some critics have claimed but it is nevertheless a striking first novel. Meyer may not be a completely original voice but he’s a fine writer. While,ultimately, he bites off more than he can chew this is still a novel I would recommend.