Book Review: 'American Rust' by Philipp Meyer

Debut novel soaks in despair of postindustrial region

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In 1987, a 24-year-old wunderkind and University of Pittsburgh alumnus sold his master's thesis to a New York publisher. "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh," Michael Chabon's literary debut, garnered a record advance of $155,000.

That bar is now raised by Philipp Meyer, a 34-year-old from the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas.

Meyer's thesis is also a regional novel featuring twentysomethings, although his characters are far less buoyant and cheerful than Chabon's.

"American Rust"

By Philipp Meyer
Spiegel & Grau ($24.95)

"American Rust," set in a ex-milltown along the Monongahela River, sold to a Random House imprint "for a sum so large," reported the Austin American-Statesman, "it seems almost fictional: $400,000."

Then there's the unusual product placement in Patricia Cornwell's latest mystery ("Scarpetta," on page 333). The best-selling crime novelist's heroine spots a copy of "American Rust" at a crime scene.

The hype continues. On her Web site, Cornwell touts Meyer's first book as worthy of the Pulitzer Prize. The British newspaper the Guardian pointed out "Cornwell was sent the 'American Rust' manuscript by her agent, who also happens to be responsible for Meyer, a hedge-fund trader turned construction worker turned author, and his sizable advance."

Even without big money and celebrity endorsement, Meyer himself is a media story. The Baltimore native is a high school dropout who entered Cornell University at 22, after being twice rejected, to study English.

Next he earned big bucks as a Wall Street trader of derivatives. He went on to grad school in Texas, where he worked in construction and as an emergency medical technician, including a stint during Hurricane Katrina.

Meyer's novel is a simple yet intense story. Its setting is the fictional Mon Valley town of Buell, Fayette County ("Fayette-nam, as it was popularly called").

Buddies Billy Poe and Isaac English meet up when Isaac is on the run, planning to flee west for a better future. In an abandoned factory near the river's edge, a drifter tries to rob and molest Poe. English accidentally kills the man.

When the two friends return to drag the hobo's body into the Mon, police are already on scene. The plot grows out of the pair's resistance.

Meyer, like Chabon, is a talented prose stylist. However, his novel's structure is problematic. The tale is told in a round-robin fashion through the eyes of five characters, none of whom is likable. The lack of a sole sympathetic protagonist is frustrating. Also, this method inches the plot along, painfully, and adds pages to the story. Less would be more.

But the fatal flaw is that Meyer's characters, other than police chief Bud Harris, are cartoonishly destitute. His style is a kind of noir.

Life in Meyer's Rust Belt is consistently pessimistic and deterministic across the classes. This broad-brush effect skirts the stereotype of Appalachian white trash, a Mon Valley full.

Like Erskine Caldwell after publishing "Tobacco Road," Meyer will hear complaints that his novel is exaggerated and needlessly cruel. The mayors of Brownsville and Charleroi will not be flattered.

In the long run I'll bet that Meyer, the new wonder boy, prevails. For all of its literary flaws, "American Rust" depicts a stunning, postindustrial landscape that we Pittsburghers, at least, admire like scars.

Perhaps like the North Dakota or Arizona of the Coen brothers, Mon Valley noir will translate to the big screen under the right direction. And lucratively, given Meyer's track record.

Peter Oresick is the author of the poetry collection "Warhol-o-rama" and a forthcoming book from Carnegie Mellon University Press, with David Demarest, on the Pittsburgh novel.


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