American Rust – Philipp Mayer

7 January 2013
Part 1
After I’d dipped into this book and read the first three or four pages I told someone I was impressed. Mayer mixes an easy-going third person narrative with stream-of-consciousness, giving us something of the interior life of Isaac, clever, 20, and about to leave the closed-down steel town he grew up in. And then I read on. After about 20 more pages I googled the title plus ‘Bruce Springsteen’, and there it was, the same connection made by six other bloggers on the first page of results. But maybe that’s just laziness: what other world of blue-collar no-hopers would I know about?

One of the problems I’m having with this book is its relentlessness. The first two or three chapters are Recession porn, with the closed steel-mills, the 150,000 unemployed men, the early-onset arthritis, the failed mortgage payments on the trailer that was only going to be temporary. And, even before the attempted homosexual rape and the caved-in face that kills one of the low-lifes involved, we’ve had references to an earlier crippling industrial injury, a criminal assault and a broken nose one character manfully re-sets on the playing field. Interspersed with all this are the adjectives: old, broken-down, abandoned… and so on. Is Mayer laying it on a bit thick? You decide.

In fact the plight of the workers in what used to be a prosperous town is only the background, a downbeat mise-en-scène for a group of characters who just want to get out of there. Only one of them has managed to leave, Isaac’s older sister Lee, and he’s still seething with resentment that she left him to look after Dad. At the start of the novel Isaac himself wants to live out the old American fantasy of catching a ride on the freight trains, first to Pittsburgh and then to California. How hard can it be? His friend Poe has talked about coming, and walks with him, but… but what? The first sign of bad weather is enough to send them scurrying to a disused machine-shop and the McGuffin that Mayer feels he needs to kick-start the plot.

It’s preposterous. Or, rather, it’s a page from one of those violent American comic-books (The Walking Dead springs to mind) or a scene in a Coen brothers movie. Isaac makes a fire, but when three bums come along and claim the space he decides it’s time to leave. He’s skinny and no good in a fight but Poe, who could have been a contender on the college football circuit, stays… and it seems only seconds later when Isaac hears the sounds of a fight. He roots around, finds a ball-bearing the size of a baseball, and goes back in. One of the bums has Poe in a hold with a knife at his neck – he’s already cut him – and his hand down his trousers. Isaac throws the ball bearing at the other man’s face and kills him instantly. (Mayer has already let us know what a crack shot he is, so that’s ok.) Cue loving descriptions of what a five-pound metal ball can do to a face.

What to do? They get out of there, inconveniently leaving Poe’s old team jacket – the one with his name emblazoned on it – and, hidden outside, Isaac’s bag. So he can get a new bag, can’t he? Not when it has the $4,000 he’s taken from his disabled father. Time to go home. Each chapter is headed with a character’s name and told from that person’s point of view, so we get their separate experiences. Isaac is in a big house once owned by the managerial class, scrimped and saved for by his aspirational dad before property values went through the floor and his dad got maimed in an industrial accident. (I’m not making this up.) Isaac is pissed off and sweating with anxiety, wonders why his sister has arrived home in her big Merc, thinks about how he’ll finally tell her how it is. Yeh, sure. Poe almost dies of exposure before his poor mum drags him to the trailer and gets him in a hot bath, even though her shitty sewing job, the one that is making her arthritis worse, doesn’t pay the electricity bills. (I’m not making this up either.)

I’ll speed up, because all this happens in the first 25 pages. The rest of Part 1 is nearly all plot. It’s next day, and Isaac and Poe have got to go back and get their stuff. But outside the old machine shop waits police chief Harris – the one who used to have a thing going with Poe’s mother, and got him off lightly following that assault – and his less friendly-looking partner, Ho. Harris has already found – and, get this, hidden – Poe’s jacket. He drives them back into town and tells them to keep their noses clean. Ho is miffed, but what can he do?

They need a lift from town, and Lee will do it. Not only is she Isaac’s sister; she had a thing going with Poe before she went off to Yale on a scholarship and then got married without even telling him. (Clearly this is the same place as District 12 in The Hunger Games, or the Simpsons’ Springfield, where a tiny handful of people are locked in a tight matrix of acquaintanceship.) They go to a bar, Poe nearly gets into a fight – he’s presented as such a loser that’s all he ever does – and Lee knows it’s because of her. Back at the big, falling-apart house Isaac slumps off to bed while Lee and Poe have one last consolatory screw under the blanket on the porch swing. Bless.

One last thing, balanced on one of those infuriating little coincidences you get in novels. It certainly infuriates Isaac when he hears that Lee has come back to Loserville – real name Buell – to take him and Dad away from all this. Her marriage to a different kind of loser – he’s rich and gets depressed – means she can afford to pay for Dad’s care and, who knows, the education in astrophysics (or whatever) that Isaac has dreamed of since birth. The infuriating coincidence is – well, we know. Just before he slumps off into the dark and Mayer draws a line under Part 1, Isaac tells her: ‘You were a day too late.’

9 January
Part 2
What shall I start with? Plot? Style? Characterisation…? Except it doesn’t really work like that. At the start of the novel the plot seemed to be driving everything else, but now that just feels like a set-up. (I called it a McGuffin at the time.) Mayer’s tiny group of main characters are like pieces on a chessboard, and by the third or fourth chapter of Part 1 their positions are established. Since then there has been a sense of inevitability about the way things unfold: one character’s moves have to be like this, another character’s like this, and so on. Poe can’t help the ‘fire’ – the rush of anger that leads to mindless acts of violence – that seems to be the genetic legacy of the grandfather who eventually blew his own brains out. Isaac’s genetic heritage is to sit tight until he simply has to get out, as mindless an urge as Poe’s acts of violence. His mother’s method was to drown herself, and Isaac seems to have tried that a couple of months before the novel opens. (Another suicide has been mentioned, making it three, but I can’t remember whose that was now.) Part 2, after the failed attempt that opens the novel, shows Isaac on his way, out of there. In his head he’s another character, ‘the kid’ – a feature I’m finding more and more far-fetched – so any setbacks can be met with an almost comic-book fantasy of invulnerability. He’s survived a beating on his first night on the road – Mayer likes to have the threat of violence always bubbling under the surface, erupting occasionally – and now I’m waiting for the rude awakening that must surely come.

I mentioned other characters, all of whom have their own chapters from time to time. Grace, Poe’s mother, is another one who failed to get out. We saw her abusive and womanising husband briefly in Part 1, pretending he was coming back after leaving her again…. He’s useless, and Mayer has taken him from stock. He becomes the reason why Grace couldn’t leave: she had to be the one to stay with Poe – he’s Billy to her – so he could focus on football. The other man in her life, Harris, has done his best for her: part of the set-up, as we already know, is that there has been something going between them. Not only has he saved Poe from serious brushes with the law several times, as he reminds him in Part 2; he found Grace a job with prospects in the city which she didn’t take.

We’re getting a pattern here. Grace’s motive is almost identical to Isaac’s, who also refused a prospect dangled in front of him: they stayed because they thought, wrongly, that somebody needed them – acts of pointless self-sacrifice for which neither of them gets any thanks. Poe can’t get out because… well, no satisfactory reason is ever given beyond the ‘fire’: he got mad when he thought he was being pushed into a career in football even though he was, and remains, no good at anything else. Harris is still there because he likes the job, despite budget cuts that seem to have removed most of his staff from under him. And, of course, he still likes Grace more than he admits… and he ponders the prospect of a lonely retirement, not far away now, with dread.

Which leaves Lee, the exception, the one who not only got out but wants to take Isaac and her father with her. Unfortunately for her, Mayer has a millstone for her neck as well. As for his other female character, it has a lot to do with sex…. And I’ll pause a while to ponder on young, ambitious male writers who think they can show what makes women tick. It’s horrible. I couldn’t quite believe what I was reading when we see Grace in Part 1 making minute-by-minute calculations about how to make things sexually interesting enough to keep her no-good husband. Lee, both in Part 1 and Part 2, seems utterly incapable of resisting Poe. When she picks him and Isaac up in the town in Part 1 she’s made a big effort with makeup and clothes, and there’s an inevitability – that word again – about what happens on the porch later. It happens again in Part 2. It isn’t that she still fancies Poe after all these years; she’s incapable of being in his company without wanting him – sensitive readers look away now – to fuck her. She seems to have married her husband for money, certainly gets nothing else out of the relationship – if you catch my drift – and she’s as driven as everybody else in this bloody book by forces she can’t control. For Freud it was the id, but he can be excused because was a long time ago. I don’t know what Mayer’s excuse is.

I’m beginning to realise why these characters feel like pieces on a board. Whatever it is that Mayer gets out of his style-bag to convince us that these are conscious, living entities – sometimes the stream-of-consciousness will go on for page after page after page – in terms of motivation they’re one-dimensional. Which gives the plot, which I suppose I’d better tell you about, its plodding inevitability. Isaac you know about. Grace you know about. Poe: he’s been picked up by Harris, who tells him that the new-broom young DA wants to score some easy points by making an example of him. It could even be the lethal injection for Poe unless he comes up with a better story: there’s a witness now – the third bum, no doubt, the one who got away after Poe got the better of him – who, by the end of Part 2, has put the finger on him in an identity parade. Poe is now on remand in jail, and it’s as nasty as you’d expect.

Next. Harris… you mainly know about. His main job in Part 2 is to make things marginally less awful for Poe, but his hands are tied by the circumstantial evidence, Poe’s previous form, that pesky young DA, and the fact that Poe is saying nothing about Isaac’s part in the killing. (He’s told Lee, but nobody else.) Is that enough about Harris? He lives in a remote hill-top house with his dog, as though to defy the world. But he knows it won’t do, not really….

Which leaves Lee. The last time we saw her, she was with Poe. They’ve just had another consolatory screw, and Poe has just told her exactly what happened on the fateful day, including what Isaac did with the ball bearing. She thinks quickly: who’s she going to help? She decides it’s going to be Isaac and gets enough of a signal – they’re out in the car where the young lovers of the town go – to phone her limp husband to tell him she needs a lawyer for her brother. He’s ok with that – but we find out later that the first screw of the night is not the last, that they carry on doing it for the rest of the night. We don’t know at the end of it whether Lee has changed her mind about who the lawyer might be helping….

And that’s all I have to say for now, except for that style-bag of Mayer’s. There’s a cinematic feel to the mise-en-scène in the Rust Belt, usually shot in incredibly long takes – so long, in fact, that it feels as though we’re already about five hours into the movie, and we’re only half-way through. It’s lovingly done, and I’m enjoying the scenery more than most other things. And, of course, it’s seen through different characters’ eyes, with Isaac’s often – but not always – short, clipped sentences or Poe’s long, stringy ones. You can tell that Poe is no academic: full stops are a mystery to him. But, to change the subject, will he carry on sacrificing himself for the bright boy?

11 January
Part 3 – sorry, Book 3
So far, yes. Poe. Sacrificing himself for the bright boy, despite the kinds of prison horrors a writer like Mayer is duty-bound to put one of his characters through: real jail, not some kind of soft local place, because the bail is set so high (eh?); enough provocation on the first day for him to pick a fight with one of the alpha Black prisoners; help arriving via the alpha Whites, which he knows will lead to some kind of payback; the payback, consisting of a forced promise to beat up a guard who owes them. (Sigh.)

Then there’s Isaac, helped on to a train by a hobo of 30 years’ experience, as far as Detroit. There he, Isaac, does one of those things that could only happen in a novel: he reaches into the secret place where he keeps his $4,000, in full view of the hobo. And guess what, that night, while he’s sleeping? Meanwhile Harris is offered some advice by Jabba the Hut, really his old friend the judge, made fat and boozy by the contacts he’s made and the pockets he’s helped to line. He tells Harris he should drop Poe and his mother and start to look after his own interests. The judge could put a word in for him for his own job when he retires, if only he starts to see sense…. Ok, says Harris. As if. Cue dinner for two in the trailer and, later, the 50-something Harris looking down at himself and marvelling how he’s still got it in him. Like Isaac, he has an alter-ego. His is Even Keel, the one who makes the safe decisions in his life. In the trailer, ‘Even Keel takes a torpedo’ and, unlike whatever it is that stirs in Harris’s pants, he’s dead in the water. Predictable? I couldn’t possibly say.

Grace: enough said. She’s upset about poor Billy, obviously, but she tries not to be while she cooks that dinner for two and puts on her makeup. Lee: as you were. She hasn’t changed her mind, the only development being that she’s told her father what Poe has told her about Isaac’s part in the killing. He kind of doesn’t want to know, and she goes off to that place where people in this novel always go: in amongst the landscape appreciation, pages can be filled with memories, regrets, thoughts about how it might have turned out differently. (I’ve just thought about it, and every single one of them does this, all the time.) And that thing I described in Part 2 – sorry, Book 2 – which has Poe’s thoughts in longer, stringier sentences than everybody else…. Well, it happens to all of them when there’s a lot going on. I think it’s just Mayer’s way of indicating stream of consciousness. Nobody’s got time for full stops when they’re having to think about all this stuff.

Is that really all that’s happened in the 80 pages covered in Book 3? It seems to be.

17 January
Book 4
I’m finding it hard to think of what to say, because Book 4 is so like Book 3. It isn’t identical – there’s less scenery and more internal – or do I mean eternal? – self-examination. And, in a couple of chapters, Mayer briefly widens that tiny matrix of characters I mentioned before so we can get an idea of what other people are thinking about the killing. First Grace goes out with some friends, who try to be tactful about the fact that her only son has had his mug-shot all over the papers. Then Harris goes out with a bunch of his own friends, who aren’t tactful at all. Opinions are, I would say, exactly as you would predict. Poe is obviously guilty, he’s had it coming for a long time, it would have been better if he hadn’t been let off so easily before…. It doesn’t help Harris that this is what he himself thinks, even in the moments when Even Keel doesn’t take charge. It’s also, if I remember rightly, what Poe thinks.

I’ve used the word inevitability several times already, and it feels that whatever happens in the final sections of this novel it’s going to feel as though things had to turn out this way. All the characters – and it’s a feature of this novel that their thought-processes are deadeningly similar – muse about how they couldn’t have done anything any differently. Grace: she only did her best for her son. Lee: she had no choice but to do what she did. Harris: hiding that jacket of Poe’s, he thinks near the end of Book 4, proves that his future actions were never in any doubt. Isaac: whatever has guided him up to now, he’s only got one option left, and that’s to keep walking. Which leaves Poe….

He’s the most fatalistic of them all, believing that he can do absolutely nothing to make things better for himself. His cellmate arrives back from being isolated, and insults him – so Poe has to fight him, and ends up half-killing him – meaning he can’t fulfil his promise to beat up the guard…. Later, as he waits for his lawyer to arrive, he thinks through his options. He won’t say anything to implicate Isaac unless the lawyer asks him what happened. But the question is bound to come up, and Poe decides he will have to tell the truth. So… he refuses to see the lawyer. It’s the logic of the madhouse – or of a pre-planned, clockwork universe where options don’t exist because we are driven by something inside us we can’t control. We’re back to the id again. It’s a word Mayer never uses but, as the novel progresses, every single character is being pared down to his or her animal essence.

It isn’t enough, because it closes down any opportunity for development either of character or plot. Things happen, sure, but only one thing per chapter. Take Isaac as an example. In his first chapter in Book 4 he gets so cold he considers a kind of passive suicide: dying of exposure is supposed to be almost comfortable, isn’t it? In the next he steals a whole new wardrobe of clothes and manages to outrun the Wal-Mart employees on his tail. And in the third , realising it’s all become a bit aimless, He contemplates jumping to his death from a road-bridge. But he carries on walking instead. And that’s it.

I don’t know whether all these interior monologues are supposed to reveal some kind of character development. All of them – again, Mayer likes to make them all live through similar dark nights of the soul as they ponder their own motivations – come to unflattering conclusions about themselves. Grace wasn’t a good enough mother. Harris is a lost soul without Grace, so he has got no choice but to try and help her. Lee was always selfish. Poe, he decides, always had it coming. Isaac wasn’t selfless, but the opposite: he only wanted his father’s approval. And, he realises, there is no ‘kid’, only himself. Well, duh.

I’ve just had a terrible thought. All this navel-gazing keeps leading to what the characters have done, or failed to do, for the other people in their lives. Grace for Poe, Harris for Grace through Poe, Lee for her father and Isaac, Isaac for his father…. And, crucially, Poe for Isaac. He isn’t talking because as he sees it’s either him or Isaac in the hell-hole where he’s ended up, and if he talks it will be Isaac. He can’t do that to him. The terrible thought I’ve had is to do with redemption. If it turns out that Poe, and everybody else, is earning a kind of redemption through the torment they are living through… well, I’ll be disappointed.

31 January
Books 5 and 6
I’ve no idea why Mayer splits the last few chapters into two ‘Books’ like this. But then, I don’t know why he splits any of it into sections, because the trajectory of every individual story is straightforward and unswerving. It ends, as it began, like a Coen Brothers movie: following some implausible, take-it-or-leave-it violence we’re left wondering what the point of it all was. (Sometimes I feel better about Coen Brothers movies than that, but not always.)

Basically, a man has to do what a man has to do. The women in these final chapters don’t do anything, as though to confirm what I thought early on in the novel of Mayer’s ability to deal with his female characters. Then, I thought it was horrible. Now I think he’s given up on them: our final view of Lee is over 40 pages from the end, as she talks inconsequentially to some former school friends about leaving or not leaving the old place; Grace is stewing in her own sweat for nearly three days as she wonders what Harris is going to have to do to rescue Poe again. As I said, it’s down to the men.

Poe, fatalistic to the last, puts himself in a position where he’s likely to be killed. We get a reprise, or an expansion, of what we’ve always got from him: ‘Your life was on a fuse, it was set when you were born it was all people and all lives.’ (Book 5, and that’s all the punctuation you’re going to get.) Then we get descriptions of what it feels like to be nearly stabbed to death, and of slowly re-emerging into consciousness following operations and transfusions of gallons of blood. But he did what he had to do: he never told anyone about Isaac, even when he was delirious.

Harris kills the witness and the other man who was at the old factory when Isaac killed the bum. He doesn’t feel good about it, and gets injured himself, but he did what he had to do.

Henry English thinks about what a burden he’s become, remembers the accident that he regrets having survived – so there’s plenty of opportunity for Mayer to make it gritty, with predictable descriptions of corporate cynicism and liquid steel flowing like lava over workers like that final scene in Terminator 2. (I was brought up in a steel town, and heard stories like this in the playground.) He decides to kill himself. Sometimes a man’s just got to… etc.

Isaac spends Book 5 hitch-hiking home, and Book 6 giving himself up. But by the time he speaks to Harris there’s no case to answer, so he’s free to go. But he did what… etc.

The end. E Annie Proulx could have made a good short story or two out of the material here and, like her, Mayer is good at topography. But there’s not enough material for a novel. Maybe there would be enough for a movie: in these later chapters I’m reminded more and more of an old-style western, with its closed frontier community and the moral dilemmas that come down to one man’s stark choice while the women wait. There’s even the modern equivalent of the evil cattle baron, trampling over the old ways of life for profit. Except in this modern take, the hero can’t win because – because what? Instead of an individual crushing the little people there’s an evil corporate entity you can’t even see. Thank goodness a man can still solve some of his problems with his gun.


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