It’s barely halfway through the year, but if any other book beats out American Rust for the Writer Working book of the year, it’ll have to be so good I don’t think I’ll be able to stand reading it.
Phillipp Meyer’s evocation of the rusting Pennsylvania steel industry and its parallel with the deterioration of institutions in a collapsing society, or the collapsing part of a society, is so powerful it shakes your heart. When institutions die, of course, people and families die with them. Such deaths and transformations are the core of American Rust.
Meyer’s novel is a marvel of characterization, one that breaks another of those cardinal writing rules—be careful how many characters you introduce lest you split your reader’s focus. Meyer gives us five people, each of them so powerfully drawn that just when you think the book belongs to one of them, you decide, no, it must belong to this other. Still, each one is so absorbing, all of them held together by the force field surrounding the inciting incident near the novel’s beginning, that the reader not only doesn’t feel unfocused, but is drawn deeper into every emotion and event that leads up to and away from that initial brutal scene that becomes a quicksand for everyone involved and for everyone around them.
None of the characters is particularly heroic, or even decisive. In fact, when anyone who appears decisive is likely about to change his or her mind. And yet, they persevere, and they love. I’m reminded of what’s become that cliché from Faulkner’s Nobel speech. Something like “the human spirit will not only endure, it will prevail.” But damned if I can tell you exactly how this book, with all its corruption and weakness, and mistakes can send a message like that. But it does.