A Wealth of Despair Among The Impoverished

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By Ron Charles
Wednesday, February 25, 2009; Page C01


By Philipp Meyer

Spiegel & Grau. 367 pp. $24.95

Philipp Meyer's powerful first novel, "American Rust," scrapes beneath today's economic headlines to show us a community corroded by poverty and despair. Told in language both plaintive and grand, it's a tale of murder and the struggle for redemption in a Pennsylvania steel town that will never reclaim its old prosperity. Everything about this story seems essentially American, but such is the strength of Meyer's prose and, unfortunately, the prevalence of economic anxiety that it's already been sold to publishers in a dozen other countries.

At the center of "American Rust" are two pensive, restless young men, unlikely friends who neglected to flee their dying town when they had the chance after high school. Isaac English was a brilliant student, but his mother's suicide and his father's disability paralyzed him when he should have gone to college. His hulking friend Billy Poe was offered a football scholarship, but he balked at doing what everybody thought he should, and now he's living with his mom in a trailer, eating deer he kills in the woods and resisting the humiliation of applying at Wal-Mart.

A gripping opening scene sets the novel in motion toward ever-swelling tragedy. Isaac is running away from home with $4,000 he's stolen from his father. He has a plan he half knows is ridiculous: to hitchhike to California and study astrophysics at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. But before he gets far out of town, he runs into his buddy Billy Poe, and the two of them take shelter from the rain in a half-collapsed factory. When they're confronted by three homeless men, Isaac wants to run, but Billy -- who can never resist a fight -- takes them on, and one of the men is killed.

This death is full of moral ambiguity and complicated repercussions that Meyer explores through the rest of the novel. Rather than go immediately to the police, the young men panic, making an incriminating situation far worse. Billy is arrested and held in a brutal state prison where the story's most harrowing scenes take place. He refuses to say anything that might exonerate himself at his friend's expense. Meanwhile, Isaac continues his trek to California, entertaining and rousing himself along the way with a mock-heroic narration of his own wretched adventure: "Chased by bandits," he thinks, "the kid perseveres. . . . Empty stomachs make for clear heads. Bored with walking he grows gills, swims upriver, comes out downtown. Crowd swoons." It's a fantasy constantly challenged by his guilt for abandoning his crippled father and his jailed friend.

Each chapter focuses on a different character, a structure that tends to emphasize how isolated they are, harboring their own secrets and desires. Meyer blends his own observations with the thoughts of these people as they worry and reassure themselves, fall into fits of depression and then rally in moments of feeble hopefulness.

Young Billy is an existential hero in the tradition that stretches from Ernest Hemingway to Cormac McCarthy. He's violent and rash, but with an ember of conscience, a yearning to do well and act honorably in a situation he knows he can't survive. And his mother, Grace, is just as brilliantly drawn. (Unlike Hemingway or McCarthy, Meyer knows how to create heartbreakingly real female characters, too.) Grace is trapped by a series of poor choices, baffled by the way fate has always turned against her and terrified by the possibility that she'll lose her son.

Meyer's tone is less polemic than John Steinbeck's, but he's working on the same broad scale, using the struggles of a few desperate people to portray the tragedy of life in a place that offers no employment, no chance for improvement. "In the time since Poe and Isaac were born," he tells us, "the area had lost 150,000 jobs -- most of the towns could no longer afford basic services; many no longer had any police. . . . It was like this all up and down the river and many of the young people, the way they accepted their lack of prospects, it was like watching sparks die in the night."

These scenes are tinged with intimations of nature's revival, oddly beautiful details of an environment recovering from decades of abuse. There's an echo here of "The World Without Us," Alan Weisman's haunting book about how the world would change if humanity suddenly vanished. Ten years after the local mill closed, "it now stood like some ancient ruin, its buildings grown over with bittersweet vine, devil's tear thumb, and tree of heaven. The footprints of deer and coyotes crisscrossed the grounds." The Earth reasserts itself, Meyer suggests, rendering the affairs of man just a momentary interruption, a perspective that makes our prosperity seem all the more fleeting.

Meyer grew up in Baltimore, where he dropped out of high school and pursued various careers as an emergency medical technician, a construction worker and a derivatives trader for a Swiss bank. Along the way, he studied English at Cornell, and most recently he taught writing in Austin, Tex. The variety of those experiences -- the intimate knowledge of hard physical labor, high finance and great literature -- informs every page of "American Rust." Indeed, the burden of Significance weighs heavily on these chapters, and the pacing is a bit erratic. Billy and Isaac's Hamletesque indecision sometimes comes at the expense of the novel's forward momentum, but the plot's violent tension always reasserts itself. In the most bracing terms, Meyer has calculated a poor economy's human costs. He couldn't have known as he worked on this backwoods story that he'd be publishing it at such an alarmingly relevant moment.

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