Few good novels come as stuffed full of lectures as Philipp Meyer‘s American Rust, which tracks the lives of a handful of people in the economically decimated Monongahela Valley after a murder. Every once in a while, after the plot has moved along sufficiently, a bit of dialogue like this springs up:
“You should have been here for the seventies, Bud. The department was buying new cruisers with Corvette engines maybe every three years. And then came the eighties, and then it wasn’t just that we lost all those jobs, it was that people didn’t have anything to be good at anymore.” He shrugged. “There’s only so good you can be about pushing a mop or emptying a bedpan. we’re trending backwards as a nation, probably for the first time in history, and it’s not the kids with the green hair and the bones through their noses. Personally I don’t care for it, but those things are inevitable. The real problem is the average citizen does not have a job he can be good at. You lose that, you lose the country.”
The only person on Earth who actually says things like that out loud is David Simon—and only then in front of an audience, I suspect. Passages like that should spell trouble for a novel that deals in realism, one that attempts to accurately portray the gritty truth about prison life, train yards, cops, bars, and doublewides. I read the first 75 or so pages skeptical about Meyer’s ability to have it both ways—would he write a novel or a jeremiad? Ultimately Meyer opts to write a novel, and one that succeeds in part because he has two sharply defined lead characters: Billy, a high-school football star and local troublemaker wrongly accused of killing a drifter; and Isaac, who actually did the deed and attempts to escape by hopping trains out west.
Meyer spends a lot of time in the heads of both men, and their characters are distinguished as much by their interior monologues as by what actually happens to them. Billy’s thoughts are earnest but simple. (“He would go to the library and fill out the applications for schools, April 10th now, another day advancing, it would not stop until he died. Only even then it would not stop, the day he died would be like any other day. He hoped that was a long way off.”) Isaac is the bright one, and he swims from thought to thought, scraps of information popping into his head, allowing Meyer to keep the language colorful while also capturing Isaac’s mindset. (“Internal pain, turns the stomach. Better to break an arm. Depends. Good rib-break better than bad arm-break. Leg-break the worst—can’t move—done for. Plus lose a quart of blood per femur. Reason they break your legs on the cross—act of mercy.”)
That kind of rigorous insularity extends to the remaining handful of characters in the novel. Poe’s mother, Isaac’s sister, and the local police chief, together with Isaac and Billy, make for a tight knot of characters, and if five interior monologues seem like two or three too many to keep track of, it’s doesn’t seem like a lot when five people encompass a world. Meyer’s loudly broadcasted messages are matched by a more subtle one: Lacking large economic engines and lacking social supports, people turn tribal, and each moral decision one member of the tribe makes affects everybody else. Meyer’s great achievement in the novel is showing how those small decisions radiate outward so strongly.
Meyer spends enough time drilling deep into the heads of his characters to earn the right to his mini-essays on death of America’s manufacturing base. That’s smart thinking: Journalistic strategies and novelistic strategies don’t tend to mix well. Meyer only makes the mistake of attempting to explicitly blend the two only once, toward the end of the novel as Isaac hitches a ride with a trucker:
The driver winked at him again. “You mind holding on a second? You ought to listen to this guy who’s coming on.”
“You know him?”
Isaac could hear the voice chattering away. “I think my dad likes this guy.”
“G. Gordon Liddy.” He shrugged. “I don’t always agree with him but he’s interesting.”
Isaac settled himself while the driver turned the radio up. Then suddenly he turned it down again.
“I realized my point,” he said. “There’s no mystery for your generation. But back to our programming.” He turned up the radio again.
Removed from the novel proper, that’s a reasonable enough exchange, the kind of chatter that might really happen in a semi cab. But by this point, Meyer has led the reader to pay attention to big statements, and the one that arrives after all this signaling—hang on, he’s turning down the radio!—couldn’t be emptier. “There’s no mystery for your generation” could just be some dumb thing chatty truckers say about society, but preceded by all the smart things others say about society, it reads like a noisy statement of theme, and a banal one at that. Mercifully, tough, Meyer doesn’t dwell on it. One page later Isaac’s out of the truck and walking down the highway, alone with his thoughts, a better place for him and the novel to be.