By Philipp Meyer
Spiegel & Grau, 2009
|American Rust is Philipp Meyer’s first book, and we must therefore start by dispensing with “The Myth of the Debut Novel.” Some say the source of this myth is the hard-working literary agent, others say it arises from the publicist angling to create a mystique around an unknown author, and still others claim that the sneaky author, wearing his suit of humble beginnings on the interview circuit, is to blame. Whatever the source, there is nothing magical about a debut novel. True, Meyer’s biography has a made-for-TV-movie storybook charm – Baltimore high-school dropout, trauma center volunteer makes good via a GED, gets into Cornell, graduates, flits from derivative’s trader to construction worker to EMT till finally landing on novelist.|
But wanting magic to arise from those circumstances doesn’t make one bit of difference to the story found between the covers of American Rust. This novel is in desperate need of an exceptional editor rather than a myth. Amidst all that rust, there’s a good story, a few good characters, and it’s the first book that I’ve read in a long while that deserves to have American in its title; Meyer’s take on what it means to be an average Joe-the-Plumber-American holds promise for his literary future. But a lot of what’s good about American Rust manages to get lost in a bog of unimaginative prose, stereotyped characters and dead-ended subplots. The reader needs a Moses to guide him through that wilderness.
Twenty-year-old Isaac English dreams of becoming an astrophysicist. He has sacrificed the last five years of his young adult life for his invalid father who’d been injured many years earlier in an industrial accident. At the start of the novel, Isaac has had enough. He steals his Dad’s pitiful stash of $4,000 and plans to ride the rails to California to find a college that will take him. His plans are so ill-defined and unrealistic that alarms start ringing: are we supposed to think he’s mentally deficient? After all, only a few months earlier he walked into a river to feel what his mother had when she had committed suicide. Luckily, he tried that experiment in the presence of Billy Poe, a 21-year old former high school football star who gave up a chance to play at Cornell to work in a local hardware store. From Poe’s perspective, Isaac was trying to commit suicide. And what is the reader supposed to think? There lies the essence of this novel’s problem. We don’t know what to make of Isaac, and the other characters are either too distracted by their own lives or care too little about Isaac to tell us. This wouldn’t be such a big problem if it wasn’t for the fact that Meyer has set up Isaac as a both a plot and moral linchpin.
Isaac’s relationship with Poe is equally nebulous. We might be tempted to call Poe Isaac’s buddy; however, after telling us he tutored Poe in math during high school, Isaac gives a different reason for going to see Poe before leaving town: “It was relief to see Poe, a distraction from the stolen money in his pocket.” Once again, we wonder is there something wrong with this boy that he could think so little of the guy who saved his life. And despite being wayward, inexperienced, and unemployed, Isaac treats Poe with a very strange intellectual condescension, since Poe has no pretensions to a college education. Our allegiances shift to Poe, and this seems to be how Meyer wants it: Isaac is a sacrificial lamb; Poe is the novel’s heart.
Our all-American setting is the fictional town of Buell, Pennsylvania. Jump a coal train, ride the rails and forty miles later you’re in Pittsburgh. Or stay on the train a few days more and you’re in Detroit. Any difference? Not really. This corridor of the Midwest is a cemetery to American industry. While Meyer has a sharp eye for the details of this landscape, time and again the narrative is derailed by his prose. Poe agrees to accompany Isaac to the spot where Isaac will jump on a railcar. When it begins to rain, they take cover in an abandoned factory and run into a trio of dangerous vagrants. In the following excerpt, Isaac describes the location that will soon be the scene of his undoing, his unintentional killing of a vagrant:
The river was a dozen or so yards to their left and further ahead the tracks bordered a long floodplain with the grass bright green against the black of oncoming clouds. In the middle of the field, a string of boxcars swallowed by a thicket of wild rose. At one end of the floodplain was the Standard Steel Car factory, he’d been inside it before, the plant was half collapsed, bricks, and wood beams piled on top of the old forges and hydraulic presses, moss and vines growing every everywhere. It was vast and open inside. There were always souvenirs. He had given one to his sister, the carefully formed nameplate he’d pried off an old lathe, he’d carefully polished the rust off and oiled it. There were people who had once been proud of these machines, and rescuing pieces of them make Isaac feel better. His sister had hung the nameplate over her desk, he’d seen it the one time he visited her in New Haven.
Excellent details like the “string of boxcars swallowed by a thicket of wild rose” and souvenirs such as the “carefully formed nameplate he’d pried off an old lathe” become buried by odd and distracting comma usage. Meyer links independent clauses with commas in this and subsequent passages in the novel in an attempt to establish a stream of consciousness during situations of emotional turmoil. However, it’s the leap from the lathe in the Buell factory to Isaac’s sister Lee in New Haven which is also troublesome; occurring within the space of a two sentences, it implies that it’s a quick journey from Buell to New Haven, which undercuts one of this novel’s premises that it’s not possible to really escape your home. Could this leap from present to past be additional evidence of Isaac’s damaged state of mind?
Reminiscent of the structure of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, each chapter of American Rust is told from the point of view of one of its characters: Isaac, Poe, Isaac’s sister Lee, Poe’s mother Grace, and Bud Harris, the lonely cop with a heart of gold. But Meyer doesn’t have Faulkner’s sense of humor, and his characters aren’t fitted with distinct or striking voices. Meyer makes his prose to do all the work and we end up with rambling paragraphs that scream for a red pen to put them out of their misery. Here Grace Poe moans over the fate of her son, who has been arrested for the death of the vagrant that Isaac killed:
She had always thought – she didn’t know why but her whole life she had thought that eventually, someone would come long and look after her the way she had looked after other people – her own mother, Virgil [her husband], Billy. But it had not been true for a long time, not since she was child, it seemed that she had made this one bad decision out of love, she had been unwilling to give up Virgil, been unwilling to move away from him, to a place her son might have become a different person, and the consequence was that she had now lost her son.
All for Virgil. Billy ending up this way, her bad choices all around. Your three semesters of college – how long was it before you stopped reminding people of that? That was dropped for him as well – Virgil – he couldn’t make the bills on his own. And resent you for going to school, always asking when it would pay off. Even that early sign you ignored. I was twenty-two, she thought. With a newborn child and the Valley in a depression. It was a miracle I was able to do any of that at all. Looking back she had been a braver person then. Another thing that had been chipped away. All the things you needed to know in life – you didn’t learn them until you’d already made your decisions.
Enough! The passages go on and on until you’re sick of the topics of depression, empty sex, no-good husbands, and frustrated college dreams. Mercifully, Grace drinks herself into a deep and silent depression and for the remainder of the novel lies curled up in her trailer awaiting salvation from officer Bud Harris, her former lover and the man whom she dismisses as a potential second husband because he’s too dull.
Poor, dull Bud Harris is a lonely Vietnam vet and police officer who for some inexplicable reason likes Grace and suffers for it when he discovers Poe’s football jacket near the body of the dead vagrant. Harris decides to protect Poe, even though with a former conviction of assault already on Poe’s record, Harris jumps to the conclusion that Poe is the murderer. Eventually, one of the surviving vagrants comes forward and misidentifies Poe as the murder and the DA sends Poe to jail. Will Isaac return to save Poe and end what has become a hellish westward journey that has taken him as far as Detroit and left him beaten up, robbed, and chased by cops and Walmart employees? Will Harris compromise himself to save Poe from the fate to which he’s resigned himself, since he refuses to do the dishonorable thing and finger Isaac for the killing? Or will Lee, Isaac’s sister, who has learned the truth about Isaac’s part in the vagrant killing from her former-lover Poe, save Poe and give up her brother? The fact that we’re asking these questions speaks well of Meyer’s ability to build a plot with a complex set of moral dilemmas for his characters. Meyer is a writer who knows how to sniff out a good story.
It seems the English family is full of sacrificial lambs. Isaac’s father has sacrificed his health to a failed American steel industry. After sacrificing his early post-high school years caring for his father, Isaac considers sacrificing his college dreams to save Poe. And now there’s Lee, Isaac’s Yalie sister. She feels guilty that she abandoned her brother and has returned to Buell with her checkbook linked to her new trust-fund husband’s bank account to set things right. But instead of writing checks to cover maids and nurses for her father, she finds herself writing checks to lawyers. Like Grace Poe, and unlike the men in this novel, Lee spends a lot of time moaning about her life, as here after she’s returned home and had random sex with Poe before his arrest and her brother’s flight. It turns out that Lee has married her husband Simon for his money, not love, and now, after graduating from Yale, has only the slimmest of career aspirations. Is this the 1950’s? Dead-end links are drawn between Lee’s loveless marriage and Lee and Isaac’s dead mother’s similarly loveless marriage, but this subplot leaves the reader with more questions than answers. More importantly, as Isaac’s sister, one would hope she could provide some insight into Isaac. Instead we received a few random ruminations that dead-end like this:
Still, she couldn’t make sense of Isaac’s choice to remain in Buell. He didn’t respect their father; his disdain for Henry precisely mirrored Henry’s disdain for him.
Maybe all people with minds like Isaac’s were the same. She knew he would make a much larger contribution than she ever would – he cared only about things much bigger than his own life. Ideas, truths, the reasons things were. As if he himself, his own existence, was somehow incidental.
Isaac: you could give him two random numbers, tell him to multiply them in his head: 439 times 892. He could tell you the answer in a few seconds. He just saw the answer, he didn’t even do the calculation. Divide them – it was the same. Once she’d sat with a calculator, testing him, certain he must have memorized certain combinations of numbers certain there was some trick. But there was no trick. There’s parts of me I don’t understand, he said, and shrugged.
What are we to make of all this? We share Lee’s confusion. Is Isaac’s flight motivated by disdain for his father, a sense of a greater purpose, or is he some kind of odd genius? Even the few times we are in Isaac’s head, we see him making bad choices, fighting to stay alive on the road, and barely thinking of Poe, the distraction, at all. We need the author to step in here and take control. The reader has a right to be more enlightened about such a pivotal character.
Instead, of insight into Isaac’s actions, Lee distracts us with a lot of background on her and Isaac and Mexican mother. Apparently, their mother had dreamed of being a pianist and ended up as caretaker to two children and then an invalid husband. Five years before Isaac decides to run away from Buell, she’d reenacted Virginia Woolf’s suicide, filling her pockets with rocks and drowning herself in a river. What is the purpose of this literary allusion and the fact that their mother is Mexican? Here was Isaac’s mother, a depressed character like Grace Poe, who was dragged down by her plight as a woman. Then here’s her son who sacrifices his life for his father and now perhaps will do it again for his friend/distraction, Poe. And then, here’s her daughter checking the Hispanic box on her Yale application to attain her dreams and ending up sacrificed to a loveless yet financially satisfying marriage. What do make of all these sacrifices made by a Mexican woman and her children? That America is no longer the land where immigrant’s dreams come true? Or is the allusion to be taken as more religious than literary? Once again too much is hinted at and too little revealed.
And what of Poe, the character who carried this novel for me, its true hero? Poe, who is free of snobbery and intellectual prejudice? He ends up in jail faced with a new battery of moral dilemmas upon which his life depends. And there, as Poe ponders his dilemma, Meyer’s prose shows a glimmer of the writer he can be:
He lay still for a while and he was shaking, fear or anger he didn’t know. He thought if I don’t beat that guard I got all of them after me, the whites and the blacks both, and the guards won’t care. If I do hit the guard I got the guards and the blacks after me. Except certain guards had side deals. Invisible webs. There were deals going down everywhere, only not with him.
He thought about it more and more and he wanted to punch something, he slammed his palm into the wall and rocked the bed, the wall didn’t move it would never move, his cellmate punched his mattress from the bottom. He would ignore the cellmate. But still he had just been punched. Though no one had seen it he would let it pass.
He wished Isaac was in front of him, he would knock the shit out of Isaac. All he’d done was get his throat cut and his balls nearly yanked off. He’d paid enough. He’d paid enough that night for anything he’d done. Isaac hadn’t paid at all, not a fucking thing.
Though the comma problems still distracts, here are three paragraphs that speak to Poe’s state of mind without sending us in a repetitive navel-gazing loop. Of course, the paragraphs that follow these do just that, but it’s a relief to see hope – both for the prose and for Poe. Poe will not sacrifice himself as meekly as a lamb. Instead, he will go into even this most hopeless of situations ready to fight to the end. This spirit feels comfortably American and perhaps that’s why Poe is the character into whom we want to invest our heart. America has always been a place where lions, not lambs such as Isaac, are the revered ones.
Meyer has let the inmates run the prison. Under the guise of character development, they have run amok, telling us too much that distracts and not enough that enlightens. Just as in politics, an author’s responsibility in novels is to control the message. What are we to make of Isaac and his ultimate decision? While Poe is the novel’s heart, Isaac is its moral foundation and our insight into him has been so inexpertly assembled that when he makes his decision on whether to keep fleeing or return home, it’s impossible to understand why he has made it. Poe’s heroic code is to “go down fighting.” Is this, rather than a spirit of sacrifice what Meyer believes will save America from the garbage heap of history? Perhaps. Will creating a college-educated America save us? Based on Meyer’s handling of Isaac, Poe, and Lee, probably not. At this point, it’s best that we remember those fine images that anchor American Rust, the crumbling steel mills, the symbols of our former prosperity, symbols that could point the way to a future of renewed prosperity and hope. (Okay, so I can be a believer of myths, as long as they don’t involve debut novels.)
Karen Vanuska’s creative non-fiction has appeared in The Battered Suitcase. Her short fiction has appeared in UC Irvine’s Faultline Journal of Art and Literature. She also reviews book for The Quarterly Conversation. Her literary blog can be found at http://karenvanuska.livejournal.com/.