The fundamental thread, through Philipp Meyer’s brilliant American Rust, is mistakes and failures, and how they come about through choice, instinct or luck. In the novel, each of the characters comes up against choices large and small, and the reader is not only witness to the outcomes of their decisions, but the thought processes behind them (and often the subsequent battle to stand by them).
Poe and Isaac are in their early 20s, in a small American ex-steelmaking town. Poe was a star footballer in highschool, and Isaac’s intellect is far above average, but both chose to stay at home rather than go to college. At the novel’s opening, Isaac decides it’s finally time to get away and plans a live-by-the-minute adventure across the country (basically, running away). Poe is seeing him off. Poe’s mostly contained aggression surfaces when the two encounter some drifters at the edge of town, and a surprising ‘accident’ means they turn back… but not for good.
Also in the story is Isaac’s visiting sister Lee, who married into money and got out young, leaving Isaac with his crippled father and the shadow of their mother’s suicide. There are also chapters from Poe’s mother, a woman who made too many compromises (and bad, yet seemingly inevitable decisions) and is now stuck. The local cop Harris is put on the case of the drifter, and is also involved closely in Poe’s mother’s life. The chapters are all told from particular characters’ points-of-view – in third person, but slipping effortlessly into first and second person when wringing out their thoughts. There is stream-of-consciousness here, but it is fast, snappy and compelling.
In the decisions that are made, often the smaller, spur-of-the moment ones get to mean the most later. Sometimes decisions are forced. In the processes behind choices made we see the memories, the environment, the values and the personality that shape them. By getting to know a range of interlinking characters we also get to predict and be surprised by how they relate to each other; what they’ll suffer for each other; and what they’ll choose, alone, for another. There are contemplations of a life lived – how people get where they are, the path we take and how it ends up being one over another. In the rusting steel-town setting this is even more poignant – a subtle metaphor for the choices of a modern country. The choices of force and violence versus inaction and contemplation. Thoughts about perpetrators and victims, accidents, and so on. And further, whether violence is a hardwired element of human nature; along with the blurry lines between instinct, emotion, and decision.
And what it feels like to read – that ominous feeling – doom building like No Country for Old Men; along with that ‘American’ feeling that those of us who have grown partly-up on American popular culture and cult films and books can really get into. The characters are so fleshed out and interesting and memorable. I think everyone will have a personal favourite – mine was the philosophical, intellectual, sad yet grateful Isaac. Here’s a little thought spiral from one of his chapters (his is the busiest of minds in the book):
Isaac started to disagree but it was okay. The kid will be fine, he thought. Plenty of mysteries. The universe is fourteen billion years old but a hundred fifty billion light-years across. There’s quantum mechanics versus relativity. The kid will have to make new rules – immune to the laws of man beast and fruit, he’ll live the fourth way. His mind occupied by higher systems, he’ll discover flight. The stratosphere. Cold up here, he’ll think. Cold and blue. Nitrogen – makes skies blue and plants green. Building block. Who dreams of flying most – men in wheelchairs. The old men of the world, trapped in their humidity. As for the kid, he returns like Odysseus. A long exile. His only allegiance to the king of the cannibals.
After this the man he is with says ‘You know how to keep yourself amused, don’t you?’ And I could imagine his smile so clearly.
Besides the fact that the novel has such depth, memorable characters, and so many layers of contemplation, it has a compelling pace, through the rendering of both thought and action. There is adventure, mystery, elements of danger, and notions of honour, love, truth and sacrifice. It is the most memorable book I have read so far this year.
Philipp Meyer will be appearing at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, in conversationwith Geordie Williamson; and reading alongside Tash Aw, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Monica Ali, Mohammed Hanif and Cees Nooteboom in what sounds like an unmissable International Voices event.