It’s true that I drift towards working-class literature. But, I also drift towards novels that take place in Pennsylvania. Of course, with the nature of Pennsylvania’s working-class history — the two types often overlap. American Rust is an example of this overlap. This first novel by Philipp Meyer tells the story of Isaac English who is left to care for his aging father in an old Pennsylvania steel town in the Monongahela River valley. Tragedy strikes when Isaac sets out to escape the decaying town, along with his friend, Billy Poe.
I read American Rust last year, and had mixed feelings about the book. I re-read the novel this past week, and found that I still have the same mixed feelings. I love how Meyer explores the physical landscape on this world — his details are sharp and authentic, so much so that I found his descriptions of decay lovely, and almost poetic.
However, while I loved the landscape, I just couldn’t get into his characters. It seemed that almost all of the characters were stereotypes: they simply fit into one of two categories of characters that fall into working-class fiction, especially working-class fiction that falls into dying small towns. We have the tired, injured workers who are bitter about the past glory days of factory work, and who now drown themselves in beer and prescription drugs. Then, we have the young, smart adults who flee from their background and never return, except reluctantly to help family or friends left behind. And certainly, these people do exist– they are very real characters. Still, I would like to see a different type of character — one who stays behind out of choice to help, or perhaps one who leaves but willingly comes back to save what can be salvaged out of dying town. I know those characters exist too.
Still, perhaps I’m being a bit unfair. I love the work of Tawni O’Dell so much, that I was hoping for another Tawni — and Meyer’s style of writing is much different. In spite of my mixed feelings about American Rust, I will look forward to Meyer’s future work. (And I hear, there’s a movie of American Rust in the works…)