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Over the last few years the steady rise of the Chinese economy and the slow death of many manufacturing centres in the west coupled to the recent global financial crisis have meant some tough times for people in many places across the world. One such area which has suffered an economic down turn on a scale to equal the great depression of the 1930's is the American Rust Belt also known as the Manufacturing Belt or Factory Belt. This represents an area covering much of the North Eastern and Mid-Atlantic United States. Once thriving with heavy manufacturing and steelmaking these places are now in a steady decline with massive unemployment and rising crime rates. 'American Rust' a debut novel by Philip Meyer is set in the small town of Buell, Pennsylvania right in the heart of the Rust Belt.
It follows the lives of two young men who have formed an unlikely friendship. Isaac English is a bright if shy boy who should have gone to college but instead remained at home to look after his disabled father. He is haunted by his mother's suicide an event which wrecked his family and led indirectly to his father's ill health. Billy Poe was the high school football star, once tipped for great things who failed to realise any of his early promise and has become an unemployed layabout prone to violence and with a knack for getting into trouble. Billy is disillusioned with his life and lacks the self belief or confidence to do anything about it. He is still damaged by a failed relationship with his best friend Isaac's older sister Lee.
On a faithful night Isaac comes to Billy's home and tells him that he's finally decided to leave Buell and search for a better life in California. He's stolen his fathers' savings and has romantic visions of riding the freight trains all the way across America to the 'promised land' on Pacific coast. Billy decides to walk with him to the town's outskirts but when they come upon the site of a deserted factory they get into trouble with some drifters and after a confrontation a man is accidentally killed. Billy worried about getting involved in any more trouble and Isaac frightened that this event might thwart his bid for freedom make a run for it hoping that the death will not be traced back to them. Unfortunately things don't go as planned, and soon Billy realises that his violent past has once again caught up with him, while Isaac's vision of the beatnik road trip across the states soon turns into a 'highway to hell'.
On first glance the story and certainly the two main characters sound a little clichéd. Right back to the 60's and John Updike's 'Rabbit Run' we have come across the failed high school sports star in many novels and films, he has become a standard literary character in modern American culture. Isaac the clever but troubled teenager running away from home to find himself and make sense of the world is also familiar to us, think of 'Catcher in the Rye' and yet Meyer manages to re-invent these literary stereotypes and cast them in a slightly different light making the narrative seem fresh and genuinely unpredictable.
The world that Meyer describes is one without hope, it seems all the characters are resigned to their fate, a future of slow steady inevitable decline.
Billy's mother Grace once had a chance to escape a drab life and a wastrel cheating husband Virgil, to make a life for herself in a nearby city and get a good job but instead sacrifice any chance of happiness in order to support her son's dreams of getting a sport scholarship at the local college. Now even though in her early forties and with her abusive husband finally gone she is still stuck in a dead end job which is slowly ruining her health living in a trailer with just constant worry about what trouble Billy will get himself into next to occupy her thoughts.
Harris is the local sheriff who has loved Grace for years but could never break through her misguided loyalty to her good for nothing husband. In the past for Grace's sake he has helped Billy out when he's got himself into trouble but knows that this recent event could spiral out of control and be beyond his ability to deal with.
The one person that has managed to escape to a better life is Lee, Isaac's older sister, now married into a rich family and studying law. She made a conscious decision that she would not be trapped at home with her invalid father but has now tremendous guilt about having left her younger brother in an impossible situation one which might have lead to disastrous consequences. She returns days before Isaac leaves home but can't seem to properly to talk to him before the tragic event takes place.
As things take consecutive turns for the worse Meyer opens a fascinating window into the psyche of all his characters. Each one is believable and we sympathise with their plight. Apart from the excellent characterisation Meyer also manages to convey the social and physical decay that has occurred in recent year to this once prosperous area. He brilliantly describes the bleak landscape of abandoned factory building and decaying infrastructure which once gave the dignity of well paid work to thousands of ordinary people. With economic depression there is an inevitable increase in crime and the rise in extremist groups. At a time when the Iraq war is still raging white supremacists have found fertile ground amongst the disenfranchised youth. Those who could leave have done so those who are forced to stay struggle to survive. As Meyer eloquently puts it "half the people went on welfare and the other half went back to hunting and gathering".
Along with a general lack of funds there comes spending cuts to valuable services, Harris the Sheriff is facing a cuts amongst his officers the feeling is that the state government is not interested in the break-up of the small communities and would be happy to see them all disappear. Local politicians go to extremes to show people they are being tough on law and order and with this corruption becomes rife. Although the novel is really a story about people Meyer manages to make strong political and social statements by building up a detailed and vivid picture or the desperate circumstances in which they live.
'American Rust' is a story about loyalty (mostly misplaced), about regret and about the impossibility of realising a dream without having self belief and the right breaks along the way. Invariably as with many modern American novels this story is a description of the failure of the American dream and if we are to believe the projections of future economic growth in the west, this is a story that will be told and retold many times. Despite the downbeat themes and the apparent hopelessness of the characters plights 'American Rust' is not a depressing read and at the end whilst it could never be accused of being uplifting it does raise the possibility that things don't have to stay the way they are.
The novel is not perfect by any means, Meyer suffers from the common mistake that debut novelist make that of trying to include too much and addressing too many themes. It is in part a social commentary, in part a road trip, a crime thriller, a family drama and a love story. The focus does slip at times as more and more characters are introduced but overall this is an accomplished work of fiction, extremely readable and well written. I hope his future books live up to this early promise.
'American Rust' by Philipp Meyer and can be bought in paperback (384 pages) at Amazon.co.uk for £4.98 (including p&p) at the time of writing this review.
© Mauri 2011