Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Great Set Up, But Failed Delivery: Phillip Meyer's American Rust

American Rust by Phillip Meyer starts with great promise: a dark novel about young people living in a fading rust belt town, the novel has all the pieces arranged to create a work that is both penetrating and interesting; a work that provides commentary on a part of the American situation while keeping an eye on character and plot.

But Meyer, a very good writer, stumbles on many elements.  Some of the characters provide internal monologues, or more correctly, an altered stream of consciousness on the Joycean side.  But Meyer never quite pulls it off quite successfully: rather than feeling we are in the character’s mind, there is simply the sense that Meyer is trying to pull off a technique he can’t quite master.  Rather than a flow of thoughts, we get choppy sentences. This ruins the sense of flow in the novel in many places.

There are also implausible scenarios involving police procedures, incarceration, and crime investigations.  These are less problematic, unless you are a stickler for such things.  If you are, it seems that Meyer wants to force his plot along certain lines to prove social and political points --- not to provide veracity to his story. In the process, he cuts the legs out from his plot.

Certainly, his characters are interesting, but they suffer from a degree of under treatment.  It is only partially clear why Poe did not take his football scholarship.  Billy English stays to take care of his ailing father, despite his being a genius, and despite the fact that father and son dislike each other;  there is little interplay to suggest some deeper meaning behind their attachment or estrangement.  Poe is willing to take a murder rap for Billy, because of his love for Lee, yet there is no sense that the duo has a love so strong that Billy would do such a thing.  Poe is given chivalrous impulses he never earns.  The main problem is that Meyer has his characters perform acts before he has laid the necessary motivations and groundwork for them to do so.

Meyer appears to have put the cart before the horse: he wanted to write a social story, an important statement about America, but he allowed the social critique to dominate plot and character, and as such, the novel underachieves and disappoints.

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