“American Rust” feels almost biblical in sweep. It’s heavy. It’s about a core transformation of American industry and the impact on the social fabric. It’s about whether “our” standards for crime and punishment will slip as the economy crumbles. In that sense, it’s prescient.
The book lives and breathes on the thin intersection of economic and social meltdown.
“American Rust” is a big book. It chews on lots of issues. It lives down in the grit and grime. “The Valley’s population was growing again but incomes were still going down, budgets still getting smaller, and no money had been put into infrastructure for decades. They had small-town budgets and big-city problems.” The community is at the “tipping point.” The community’s young people have “accepted their lack of prospects.”
The action focuses for the most part on two friends pursuing very different courses in the wake of a murder. But the real struggle involves holding the community together and for that the burden falls to Chief Harris. He must insert his personal feelings, personal analysis and personal sense of justice into the investigation, (a loose term in this case). He has a “personal level of comfort” about his job. “It is work to be happy about things” but he is “riding about a decision he’d made as a kid,” to join law enforcement. He’s a terrific, flawed character.
As Harris notes, a stable society requires stable jobs. “There wasn’t anything more to it than that.”
This is a thriller, in a way, of the slow-grind variety. Meyer’s writing allows for plenty of background. The scene is as important as the action. Isaac’s journey by foot and train is its own odyssey as he encounters a variety of characters, escapes trouble and finds a way to survive. You are along for the trek, you feel the distance. “Walking again, his legs had gotten stiff while he slept and he made slow progress. It was long after dark that he passed under the Mon City bridge, the train tracks ran through a long, industrial zone with brightly lit warehouses and he walked the treeline, at the edge of the light, passing dozens of old shipping containers, a house sagging into the water, tractor trailers sitting with their tires flattened and their paint weathered away.”
Along the way, Isaac makes choices and he sets his own destiny. Poe’s imprisonment is equally detailed, as are his choices. You can see why Isaac and Poe have joined up but they are each equally distinct, sharply-drawn characters.
Meyer doesn’t skip much, including the sexual and emotional lives of the main characters. The book walks a tightrope and you can look down on either side-seeing the long decline toward anarchy on one side, the potential for a return to order on the other.
“American Rust” isn’t perfect. Some of the dialogue felt a bit clunky in spots. I am not sure the sections about Lee contribute very much. But there’s no empty feeling two hours later. “American Rust” carries the weight.