Monday, February 15, 2010

Shakespeare Lives in Philipp Meyer

When asked those silly hypothetical questions like, "if you were stranded on a deserted island and you could only have one book with you, what would it be?" well, I've always figured on The Complete Works of Shakespeare. There would be something for every mood and you'd likely discover a new idea with each reading. Personally, I'm especially drawn to the tragedies which is probably why American Rust was on my radar long before I actually got to sit down and read it. Book group alert!! This would make a doozy of a discussion.

You know how, in great movies and literature, you absolutely feel that characters are on a tragic runaway train and no matter how much you try to send them vibes that say "no, don't do that, please don't," in your heart you simply understand that there's no changing their fate? Philipp Meyer has that sense of inevitability down pat. Knowing that the outcome would be dire I kept turning the pages while a pit formed in my stomach. I'm amazed that this is a debut novel.

Set in the so-called "rust belt" of Pennsylvania (it could be almost anywhere USA right now), another failing town where the middle class has been pushed to the brink by the sagging economy and the fall of the once great steel industry, this novel examines the proscribed lives of those who stayed behind and the guilt of one who escaped.  The English family is down to Isaac, a lonely, brainy kid, a misfit living in the shadow of his vivacious sister for whom the family sacrificed so that she could go to Yale, marry well and move up and out, and Isaac's dad, whose confinement to a wheelchair after an industrial accident isn't as disabling as his mental state since the suicide of his wife.

Isaac pairs up with Billy Poe, an unlikely companion, a high school jock who failed to follow up on the sports scholarships when he had the chance, and is now living with his mother in a trailer home outside of town, not even making enough money to fix up the junk car parked outside. The two guys make a half baked plan to jump a train and ride the rails to California, coasting for a while on the four grand that Isaac stole from his dad. They're barely out of town before the neophytes run into a group of derelicts whose intentions they sorely misjudge and before the night is over someone is dead, the boys are on the run and each decision they make from there on out compounds their troubles.

This book is full of wonderfully complex characters who have moments of glory and selflessness tempered by the flawed actions of human beings. Billy Poe's mother, Grace, is one such person. A woman alone, trying to raise her son, realizing that by keeping him near she has ruined him yet unable to let him go. Ironically, she gains self respect by working for a battered woman's shelter while, at the same time, allowing an abusive ex to keep returning, even as she eschews to chance for a loving relationship with the chief of police who has covered for Billy time and again.

It take some guts to read this novel. It's hard and dark and real. Meyer's descriptions of prison life can't help but give rise to questions about why the U.S. has more incarcerated people than any other country in the world. What has happened to the middle class? What can we do about the disappearing small towns of our childhoods? How can we save the Isaacs and Billys and Lees and Graces of this world? You'll find no answers here.

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