Friday, June 19, 2009

Book Review - American Rust

American Rust: A Novel by Philipp Meyer
Trade Paperback
Spiegel and Grau
343 pages
Advanced Reader Copy

“American Rust” is an aptly named novel that spins a tale of restless lives in the depressed steel towns of central Pennsylvania. Mounds of real American rust abound in this entertaining narrative. You will find here the tarnish of abandoned steel mills and mill towns corroded by poverty and despair, the rust of muddy rivers browned by the ravages of steel processing, the corrosion of ancient railroad yards and trains, and the smell of ancient steel, creosote and tailings. And, woven throughout is the rust of rage, violence, blood and death.

When I opened this book a short note on the first page struck me. The publisher likened Philipp Meyer to John Steinbeck! I was astounded and thought it quite a bit premature to compare this first time writer to an exceptional classic novelist. I began reading American Rust with the idea that Meyer had awfully big shoes to fill. Deep down I knew he was being set up to fail and that there was no way he could live up to the praise. But…

Imagine my surprise when I found that there were some very real similarities between Meyer and Steinbeck! They both describe the poignant complexities of the broken heart, especially in damaged or ruined relationships, and there are so many of them in this novel. They both depict scenes of the lost American Dream and move the story along with travelogues; riding the rails and running from inner demons. The human condition is depicted with beautiful prose and the bleak realities of facing forward and taking responsibility for ones own actions is central. They both understand the restlessness of people caught up in depression (both economical and intellectual) and the inertia of lives and actions that have steamrolled out of control. Meyer is dark, bleak and moving; everything Steinbeck was so very good at and his characters are realistically drawn in remarkable prose. They are as human as anyone we know and are both breathtakingly beautiful and tragic at the same time. When you’ve finished reading “American Rust” you will be forced to agree that while the ghost of Steinbeck does not necessarily live in Meyer it haunts him nonetheless.

A few negatives should be addressed here: The pacing is, at times, erratic and jumps from character to character sometimes at the expense of moving the plot forward. The “split personality” tough guy persona of the Kid inside Isaac was, in my opinion, unnecessary. Isaac’s own inner voice of despair and suffering would have sufficed on its own.

This was, overall, a very enjoyable read and I was pleasantly surprised by Meyer’s style and the raw emotion of the story. With these genuine scenes of rusted America you will touch, taste, smell and feel the very human struggle of trying to hold on during the toughest of times.

I give it 4 ½ stars out of 5 stars.

The Alternative
February 28th, 2009
Southeast Wisconsin

1 comment:

Rose City Reader said...

Good review. I had mixed feelings about this one and didn't like it as much as you did. My review is here:

If you want me to post a link to your review, please leave a comment on mine. I don't like to link without permission unless I'm already blogger buddies with the reviewer.