i'll save you the suspense; American Rust by Philipp Meyer is *not* in the same class as, say, Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath. But is it worth reading?
i snatched up this book after catching a Steinbeck comparison. Steinbeck is one of my carefully calculated "TOP 5 BEST" authors; so the comparison alone puts the book on auto-purchase.
it usually takes me 50-100 pages to settle into a book, form an opinion. American Rust was a quick read, i think 3 nights, and i wasn't aware of how much i read in a particular sitting... the book really was engaging. the NATURE of the engagement was somewhat strange, however...
let me provide some background. the book tells the story of a few residents of a past-its-prime mill town in Pennsylvania. unemployment, lack of jobs, lack of hope leading to more crime, drugs, depression... a story we, as Americans, have heard before and know quite well. the key event of this book is a murder, after one of two twenty-something boys, both of whom have not lived up to their post-high school potential, find themselves in a tricky situation with some vagrants (due to some bad decisions they made) and end up killing one of them. the ripple effect of this event is told to us from the unique and personal experiences of the mother of one of the boys, that mother's love interest and local police chief, the father and sister of the other boy and the two boys themselves.
i found the unique perspectives to be quite enlightening in terms of how they related to the overall plot. a certain level of honesty was built into the motivations for actions we might otherwise read about and dismiss as "yeah, i figured that". an example:
"A guilty thought came to him: it would have been better if the boy had died -- she'd be able to move on, believe what she wanted. Now the boy both existed and didn't exist, he was there but being kept from her, she would never be able to stop thinking about him. The only torch she could carry."
these are the thoughts of a local police chief, interested in a boys mother after that boy has had a life-threatening situation, while being held on murder charges. the thought itself isn't riveting, but it is this kind of writing that makes the book all the more real. the man's feelings for the mother clearly motivate him more than his feelings about her son, both of whom he is intimately involved with in very specific ways.
too, the writing style is very stream-of-consciousness:
"This wind, he thought. Should have hung on to the coat and hat. Maybe I'm not really that cold, just hungry and tired. But you ate last night, that's enough calories. One day is nothing. Figure out your bearings. I am having trouble thinking. That is my problem. Should have stopped to eat but I didn't feel safe."
this kind of writing works well, in my opinion, when you're engaged in a book... as if the thoughts where occurring in your own mind.
like i said, i really was engaged in the book, i could barely put it down. but i didn't necessarily care about the words on the page, rather, i just wanted to know what happened. like reading a newspaper.
i think Philipp Meyer's writing is good... but despite the painstaking detail built into this story using the many perspectives, i didn't find it to be all that deep. i didn't particularly like or dislike any of the characters, although i will say Poe (one of the boys) certainly steals the show in terms of who matters most (to me anyway). the book WAS very American in it's feel... but it lacks wisdom, lacks the well worn feel of American Literary standouts. but hey, this is his first published book... so i'm definitely keen to read what he comes up with next.
overall, i liked the book. i would recommend it to others. but it's not a "Great American Novel" as some have touted. it's a good, american read.