Unity recently hosted a reading for an American writer named Philipp Meyer. His debut novel has been hitting all the right buttons in the States, which has led most recently to a whirlwind tour of Australia and New Zealand.
I read the book out of a sense of duty then, or anyway I was moved to pick it up out of a sense of duty, but it was not duty that had me burn through it as quickly as I did. I enjoyed this novel more than any other I’ve read in a good long while.
There is an American poet named Jack Gilbert who used to write poems about Pittsburgh. He wrote passionately about the wabi sabi of the place, borrowing an idea from the Japanese that describes how the flaws that develop over time provide value for an object, value that has its roots in emotional history and personal relationships rather than sheer aesthetics.
I appreciate that Meyer, writing about the same region, chose to call his novel American Rust. The rust of the factories of Monument Valley is maybe the most visible sign of the community’s age and decline. Taken on its own, that rust might be seen as purely ugly, lamentable. Certainly some of the novel’s characters see it that way. But there are also those who are compelled to stay in the valley, or who leave and are drawn back, and for them the relationship is more complicated. Rust is a reminder of what made the place remarkable and is inextricably linked with the people’s history. Factories were closed and jobs were lost, and the decent hardworking Americans who had been told that they would always be able to get ahead if they did their best, suddenly found themselves struggling to hold onto the homes they had made.
The Publisher’s Weekly blurb on the cover of the book likens Meyer to Cormac McCarthy and Dennis Lehane. But Meyer writes about crime and its effects without resorting to the manipulative plot twists of a Lehane novel, and he fosters a compassion for his charatcers that McCarthy’s grim emotional detachment often fails to elicit. The murky moral compromises those characters find themselves making carry more weight as a result. For all its moments of bleakness, the novel has running through it a tone of hope. It finds value in loyalty, in community, and in sacrifices made for the love of others. Maybe the future of the new America will have us less concerned with being the strongest, the fastest, the best. Maybe we’ll recognize that being on top is not a requisite for happiness.
Not to get rid of all the rust, but to recognize the significance of the story behind it.