Philipp Meyer, American Rust (Allen & Unwin 2009)
This is another Book Club book I approached with caution. At last year’s Sydney Writers Festival, Philipp Meyer read from it in a sleep-inducing incantatory manner that I think of as peculiarly US-literary and which made the book singularly unattractive – at least it did to me. But in the spirit of challenging my own prejudgments, I chose it as one of my take-homes at our last Book Club meeting, and eventually opened it up. (Can you tell the next meeting of the Book Club is approaching, when I’ll have to return these books, and that I’d be embarrassed to admit to not having read them?)
This one confounded my negativity. The book is beautifully written and has a plot that, thriller-like, gathers momentum to a nailbiting last 20 pages. It’s set in Buell, town in Pennsylvania, on the banks of the Mon River, and the place is probably the single most strongly realised character of a strong cast. Factories have closed down years before the action of the book, and the town, like all its neighbouring towns, is in a bad way. There’s little to keep people there except loyalty to each other and to the place itself. The decaying buildings of the abandoned enterprises are in stark contrast to the natural beauty of the countryside.
The plot traces the repercussions of a killing: a young man kills a homeless man to save his best friend from serious harm, and the ripples spread from the two young men, the sister and father of one of them, the mother of the other and the local police chief, who is in love with the mother. Each of the six main characters sees himself or herself as in some way responsible for the death, and each of them has a point. This is deftly done: despite the terrible sense that these working-class communities have been abandoned by the forces of capitalism and government and left to increasing dysfunction, violence, drugs, despair, these are still deeply moral characters. Good people do terrible things in this book, and we come to realise that none of the people who do terrible things in it are simply evil.
There are some longueurs (it may have been one of them that Philipp Meyer chose to read at the SWF), and some darlings that perhaps should have been murdered, but the characters ring true and are never patronised, the many-stranded action makes the book hard to put down, and in the end some kind of dignity, if not happiness, is salvaged from the mess.
For Book Club purposes, I’m giving it 4 1/2 out of 5.