The Square Circuit

Academia, parenthood, living in a bankrupt city, and what I read in the process.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009


The first third of Philipp Meyer's AMERICAN RUST is great. Really great. (Even the POST-GAZETTE's editorial page agrees.) The novel begins with the big incident--one of the characters kills someone who is menacing his friend--and the rest of the book recounts the ways that several characters deal with the aftermath of the crime and its discovery. The two central characters (Isaac and Poe) are polar opposites: one (Isaac) a very smart kid who decided, due to tough family circumstances, not to take his sister's route and escape their dying hometown via an Ivy League scholarship; the other (Poe) a high-school football star from a "broken home" who is destined never to amount to anything. The other characters we follow--including Isaac's sister, Poe's mother, the town police chief, and Isaac's father--respond to Isaac and Poe's actions.

As most reviews of the novel have noted, the real main character of the story is the town itself, an invented Monongahela Valley town called Buell. Meyer--whose dust-jacket photo and copy plays up the whole tough-guy writer thing--has certainly done his research and has, at least is the book's acknowledgments are accurate, spent significant time in the region researching. I wouldn't have known the Mon Valley from the Loire Valley until moving here, but after passing through it and meeting many people from there I've learned a great deal. It is one of the great dying industrial regions of the country: today it's a string of smallish towns that used to host massive steel and coke works but now feature mostly boarded-up storefronts and an aging, crime-plagued population. A great deal of publicity, over the last year or two, has come to John Fetterman, the young mayor of Braddock, PA, one of the hardest-hit towns, but it's such a massive area with a relatively large population that one guy with a pretty good idea for revitalizing a bit of one small city can't do it all.

Anyway, Meyer's evocation of the Mon Valley is remarkable. It all FEELS right--but of course, how could I know? The problem is that later in the book the town looms in the background but takes up less of the foreground. Isaac goes on the lam and ends up in Michigan; Poe spends some time in jail. I found the Poe-in-jail sections the weakest portions of the novel, episodes seemingly lifted, unaltered, from that HBO show OZ. There's a huge suspension-of-disbelief problem with the novel, in that the killing that sets the plot in motion could easily be sold as a self-defense act (which it was), but the two characters involved seem never to have thought this through. I think that this is Meyer's way of stressing the fatalism of Poe and Isaac, but I didn't believe that with Isaac (who even before the killing is running away to start a better life).

Structurally, the novel is told in short stream-of-consciousness chapters whose narrative style varies according to the character. The characters' consciousnesses as represented by Meyer's prose lose their distinctiveness as the novel moves on, except for Isaac's: his is so heavily indebted to Joyce's technique in delving into Leopold Bloom's mind in ULYSSES that I kept expecting to hear Isaac think about "Plumtree's potted meat" or little Milly. Meyer tips us off to his recognition of the debt early on, when Isaac's sister picks up a copy of ULYSSES. Although it's a tough feat to pull off, and Meyer does it quite well, in the end I kept feeling like it was an exercise in stylistic imitation--an MFA workshop activity.


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