The “Machine” in the title of Tracy Kidder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book from 1982 is a minicomputer, but for anyone reading it now, it might as well be a time machine. The Soul of a New Machine takes the reader back 27 years, but in terms of the technology that is central to the book, it feels like we’re going back eons. Kidder’s book, once a riveting look into a fast-growing and mysterious industry, now reads as history. Kidder’s subject is a team of engineers at a now gone company called Data General (it was bought out in 1999). Under the brash instruction of their leader, Tom West, the engineers set out to design a computer even though the head honchos at Data General have put their support and resources behind another group. West’s Eagle group – made up of young, brilliant engineers – comes out on top. Though this book is quite dated now, I enjoyed it for a couple of reasons. Computer technology is so commonplace now that it is a part of our landscape, both essential and taken for granted. It was interesting to look back to a time before we had computers on our desks and in our pockets, when computers were as mysterious and awe inspiring as putting a man on the moon. The book was also compelling as a collection of character studies and a treatise on business theory. Kidder does a good job of putting the reader in the basement of the office building where this computer was born. If you’re interested, an excerpt from the book is available.
The writing is clear and economical, and to Maksik’s credit it never competes with Jacqueline’s ongoing plight. Add a plot so tightly focused on her immediate hardships and the unbreakable link to her mother, whose voice comes to her in memory with advice both wanted and unwanted, and Maksik seems to have set up an absolute gauntlet for himself.
For over five hundred years, barring a few interruptions, Frankfurt has been a magnet, both commercial and cultural, attracting publishers and printers, scribblers and spies. From neighboring towns to neighboring lands, then later from all of Europe, and eventually from all corners of the globe, anyone with a vested interest in the printed word would make his way to Frankfurt.Gutenberg might have been there, back at the beginning, in 1454. Maybe. We're not entirely sure. But Peter Weidhaas makes a good case for it, illustrating the possibility with a short tale of a man of Gutenberg's demeanor walking through the narrow streets of Frankfurt as the book fair was taking its nascent steps.This little bit of speculation opens Weidhaas' recently-published A History of the Frankfurt Book Fair. No stranger to the fair, Weidhaas served as Director from 1975 through to the new millennium, and is uniquely positioned to offer colorful detail on the five hundred-year-old event. While at times there might just be too much detail (do we really need a half-page list, in the middle of the narrative, of publishers and printers attending the fair in the early 1500s?), there are still enough fascinating tidbits and tangents, woven together with what amounts to a quick history of printing and the printed word, to make this an engaging read.The fair rose and fell and then rose once more. Whether he attended or not, Gutenberg's presence was felt, as, in the 1400s, Frankfurt began to gain fame as a center of trade for the printed word. Printers came to the city in droves, not just in Frankfurt, but in its arch-rival Leipzig.We get a glimpse into the development of paper as a replacement for parchment, and the rise of the paper mill, allowing information to reach the masses (or at least the educated among them) instead of just the economic elite who could afford paper's pricey precursor. The demands of the book market were beginning to be met. By 1498 there were 118 publishers in Europe.Weidhaas gives us a taste of book culture at the time. The development of Humanism led to a revival of the classics. And there was a rise in popularity of travel-related publications. Let's linger on that for a moment. What we're actually talking about are accounts of voyages by Columbus and Vespucci to the New World and Marco Polo in China. Travel lit indeed!From Weidhaas's peek into the 1500s, we find out that books were shipped unbound, and would be bound upon arrival at the fair. Later, much later, books would be sent bound and so could be sold year round. Publishers would eventually not need the fair (as it was then) to sell books. But then, as now, it was the sale of books that drove the book fair.Some colorful asides from that era: Weidhaas gives us a scathing account by Erasmus of getting a room at a German inn, and Weidhaas also notes the popularity, in the mid-1500s, of prose versions of German epic ballads from the Middle Ages - many with such titillating and enticing titles as "Emperor Octavian, how he banished his wife and two sons to a life of misery; and how, amazingly, they were once again reunited in France with good King Dagobert." This verbosity was effectively an early form of sales advertising.While money was the driving force, Frankfurt was also becoming an intellectual hub of the time, despite not having its own university until 1914. Professors would meet each other at the fair; as would librarians, poets, archivists, mathematicians.Pamphlets of Martin Luther's writings were made readily available to the people of Frankfurt. And later, during the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), we see mathematician Johannes Kepler flogging his books at the fair.Then there was a long, protracted fall. Between 1680 and 1690, nearly every publishing house in Frankfurt collapsed due to the indebtedness of publishers. As a result of this there was an anti-Semitic backlash, Jewish financiers becoming the scapegoats for the failure of the publishing houses, and regulations were imposed forbidding trading to Jews. In fact, it was the wars instigated by Louis XIV, and repercussions of the War of the Spanish Succession that crippled the economy.As well, the Reformation had moved the intellectual hub north, and the center of trade was shifting east, giving Leipzig an edge over Frankfurt. Bookshops in Frankfurt turned into bars.By the mid-1800s, even Leipzig was in decline. Book fairs - as they were envisioned then - had had their day, as the book trade was no longer dependent on fairs.The modern era of the Frankfurt Book Fair, after a few false starts, began in the late 1940s. The 1950 fair was a major success. It was both a cultural exchange and a trade show emphasizing merchandising and marketing. A literary peace prize had also been established - Albert Schweitzer won it that year - giving the fair an added PR boost.There was no shortage of intrigue in the post-war book fair. The Cold War and the building of the Berlin Wall led to the infiltration of West Germany (and the Frankfurt Book Fair) by East German spies! Beginning in 1967 and continuing into the 70s, undercover agents (using pseudonyms) from East German publishing houses were covertly checking out the activity at the fair, seeing which of their authors had books there.Weidhaas also flags some modern trends: the rise of paperbacks in the 60s to the more recent rise of the CD-ROM, the effects of the fatwa issued against Rushdie and the necessary security for publishers exhibiting his books at the fair, the banning (for two years anyway) of Iran from the fair, and the rise of inflated advances for big-name authors, at the expense of niche writers.A couple of caveats: When Weidhaas comes to the part of the fair's history that was under his watch, and needs to refer to himself, he does so in the third person, which I actually found curiously endearing.Also, some of those same chapters are loaded with a bit too much minutiae - details of who exhibited where, and lots of internal politics. Those bits strike me as being of interest to those who were in attendance, less compelling to a casual reader. But as the book is divided into short chapters, it's easy enough to skip over bits. It's guaranteed there will be a fascinating surprise around the next corner.
Who has baby fever? Belle Boggs does. Or rather, she did before she had her daughter. An attempt to understand this self-described “child-longing” during her trials with infertility treatments and her inability to conceive was one of the driving forces behind writing her book The Art of Waiting. As Boggs writes, in Scandanavia this phenomena is known as “baby fever,” and has been studied by sociologist Anna Rotkirch, who believes this desire is not a social construction but rather the expression of an instinctual longing. Rotkirch conducted a study where she placed an ad in a paper that asked people to write in with their baby fever experiences. She was flooded with letters recounting dreams of babies every night, of the need to touch onesies, of the desire borne of holding a child, of the agony of not having one. Not everyone has baby fever, thank goodness. I don’t have baby fever but I am prone to obsessive thinking and my curiosity about this specific obsession and the ways that I’m not in its thrall is part of what drew me to Boggs’s The Art of Waiting. Also, Boggs is a smart and attentive writer, and her book is championed by Eula Biss and Leslie Jamison -- two writers who’ve helped stake out a distinct corner in the medical humanities. The Art of Waiting promised to engage in a multifaceted dialogue, not just with Boggs’s experience with infertility treatments, but also with the broader cultural implications that lie at the intersection of child-longing and infertility and reproductive technologies, their benefits but also their detriment, and what this child-longing means for us as human animals and whether we have a choice in it. The first half of the book delivers on this, for the most part. Boggs offers an engaging and empathetic description of her inability to conceive, the way she felt personal failure. Excluded from the natural rhythm of life, Boggs became even more keenly aware of mating among human and nonhuman animals, the ways that some species like marmosets depend on the suppression of reproductive capabilities because of limited resources within a community. She considers too mating in captivity, how at a North Carolina zoo, one female gorilla mates to conceive while another is given birth control as she’s groomed to take over in case the child is rejected. Boggs considers the possibility of never having children, and briefly arrives at “the conscious possibility of a new purpose, a sense of self not tied to reproduction,” though with regard to the book, this is fleeting. She considers Virginia Woolf’s bareness and, as counterbalance, her creative output. Boggs writes too of the ways that her students become surrogate children -- and how they never ask why she doesn’t have biological children, because, she surmises, “they think they’re enough.” But of course they aren’t. We know this as readers, and it’s easy to consider Boggs’s dilemma with compassion. But also, she might want to go one step further and ask, why isn’t it? Boggs holds the reader close as she tells of her travails and heartache associated with her inability to conceive. She writes of watching Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf with the high school English class she teaches. She points to the way that George kills the imaginary son in the last scene, and wonders if this killing was cruel or necessary. Boggs looks at this tendency toward surrogates among infertile couples, how Virginia Woolf wrote in her story “Lappin and Lappinova” of a marriage held together by a shared investment in their imaginary “private world, inhabited, save for the one white hare, entirely by rabbits.” Boggs too has a place within this lineage: she writes about how she and her husband unwittingly created an imaginary stuffed animal family when they first married, how they’d bring them out for holiday meals, but that later, after not being able to have children, this seemed more like a masquerade that embarrassed and pained her, and so she stuffed them in a basket with other bric-a-brac and shoved it all under the bed. And sometimes Boggs’s imagination is too willing to shove ideas under the bed. She writes wistfully: “Nonhuman animals wait without impatience, without a deadline, and I think that is the secret to their composure.” This is an oversimplification of animal experience and it doesn’t interrogate or even attempt to consider the ways that other animal species might long to mother. Anna Rotkrich found -- as Boggs pointed out -- that a longing for children and to mother is instinctual. So why would Boggs assume another animal species would not feel this? Perhaps they’re at a loss to express it -- to her. Boggs’s interpretation gestures toward other species but is inherently anthropocentric. She conjectures rather than wonders, and this shuts down the possibility of delving deeper, to interrogate, research, consider, and perhaps even attempt to find companionship, an alliance, or at least acknowledge the mothering and longing that any animal might feel. Of course we all have limited life spans and periods of fertility, and while animals may not be aware of or able to communicate this longing and desire in human terms it doesn’t mean that they aren’t affected by a similar longing. When I was a child I was gifted with a book about Koko the gorilla who was taught human sign language as part of a graduate student’s experiment. Koko asked for a cat but was given a stuffed animal. She knew the difference and signed, “sad.” When she was given a kitten she mothered it as if it were a child. How is this not mothering? And why did Boggs, when writing and researching this book, not try harder to think about the experience of the nonhuman animal beyond her own anthropomorphic fantasy? Boggs writes too with sympathy for the gorilla at the North Carolina zoo who’s forced to take birth control, but she also assumes that this gorilla doesn’t feel her longing: “To wait without knowing [one] is waiting.” Maybe not her longing, but how does she know what this gorilla thinks? Isn’t this pure conjecture? Boggs looks to the nonhuman animal, to these gorillas, seemingly to expand the conversation about motherhood beyond species. But instead she uses them as a screen for her own longings. To speak of longing: what longing must salmon feel to swim upstream from their adult habitats back to their birthplaces so that they can spawn and, as a result of this journey, die? Perhaps if Boggs had encountered Jakob von Uexküll’s theory of umwelt she might have considered that the gorilla has a distinct sphere of existence, that its methods of communication and perception don’t necessarily translate to terms she can understand. The onus was on Boggs to delve further, to have researched the ways these animals long or don’t long for motherhood. To consider what this child-longing might mean for nonhuman animals, what mothering means beyond one’s own progeny. Wouldn’t that have reinforced Anna Rotrich’s research that baby fever is instinctual? I can’t help but wonder, if this gorilla had been taught human sign language like Koko, would Boggs have been able to make the same proclamations? And if the answer is no, it seems that this is an inherent flaw. But also, Boggs’s observation denies that many human animals do wait without impatience, that we don’t measure our personal success and failures by our reproductive capabilities, that perhaps we might recognize that a child could bring personal fulfillment, but that we don’t measure our worth by it. Among those of us who aren’t natural caretakers, bringing a child into the world might signify an end as much as a beginning. I recently sat up late with friends, all of us in our late-30s or early-40s and childless and okay with it -- we realized how we would be obligated to care for a child. A child demands an investment in petty conversations at times. A child is always brilliant in its parents eyes. At least until it develops its own mind. It’s easy to talk about from the outside, I realize. I see too how a child can be a source of fascination, of seeing anew. I have seen friends' lives replenished and nurtured, a newfound satisfaction with life brought on by the presence of their children. But what about the idea of not having children? What does this mean historically? Boggs talks about how in the period after WWII zero families thought it was ideal to have no children. That’s changed now, or common sense tells me this. But has it really? Despite waiting longer to have children, the number of women without children in their early-40s is falling. The Washington Post recently featured a profile of philosopher Travis Rieder who works at the Berman Institute of Bioethics and who published a book about the ethical imperative of limiting reproduction. We can limit our carbon footprint most significantly by choosing not to have children, and, with significant climate change and its consequences in our near future, Reider offers a radical suggestion for action to take now: “Maybe we should protect our kids by not having them.” Reider himself has a child, and admits this was largely a concession because of his wife’s desire to have a child. But in The Art of Waiting, these types of ethical considerations are largely superficial or left untouched. The pressure to reproduce within families is one that we need to shift, Reider argues. And this isn’t entirely different from the “reproductive futurism” and the indisputable cult of the child that Lee Edelman described as a driving force of our heteronormative society in No Future. Edelman posits that the jouissance and non-reproductive sex associated with queerness is precisely what threatens the cult of the family, this continuous process of self-perpetuation. In the 12 years since Edelman’s book, perhaps tables have reversed, so that the idea of not reproducing is now a way too to perpetuate life. But what I’m pointing to is that The Art of Waiting for all of its intelligence and care and research isn’t invested in considering the broader cultural and ethical contexts of assisted reproduction, of whether or not this desire to have children should be fulfilled. Or whether alternative forms of mothering when one can’t carry a child to term might not conform to Boggs's idea of mothering, but could be just as dynamic and fulfilling. Of the privilege of having the choice and resources to choose IVF, Boggs discusses the financial investment, how costs can reach close to $100,000, and how some states have laws that mandate health insurance cover at least part of this. Boggs’s answer is that she largely supports making infertility treatments more accessible. Of course she does. But it’s also more complicated than she’s willing to grapple with. It seems that an obstacle to Boggs’s consideration of motherhood, infertility, and medicine is that she did conceive. That her great longing was fulfilled. With the help of contemporary medicine she was able to bring a genetic child to gestation, a child that she carried within her womb. She had this child and perhaps it’s unconscionable for her to truly consider the alternative forms of mothering and meaning-making and mothering through care-taking, for children not her own genetic makeup, for other species even. She says that she and her husband consider adoption, but do they really? I don’t get the sense that this was a serious consideration -- adoption is someone else’s choice, but not Boggs’s, and despite being down on their luck, they were privileged, were able to invest in IVF and conceived a daughter during their first course. Perhaps my expectations were set because of Biss’s endorsement. Her own book, On Immunity was also published by Graywolf. As someone who’s sat through an eight-hour class on vaccination and administration schedules and live versus dead vaccines, I can vouch that the straight science is rather tedious. But Biss stumbled into a rabbit hole when deciding whether or not to vaccinate her son and with which vaccines, and accompanying her as she finds her path through this is fascinating. Her son anchors the narrative, but provides more of a stepping off point to discuss the cultural history: the ways that milkmaids didn’t contract smallpox because of their exposure to the virus through a cow’s udders. About Daniel Defoe’s Journal of a Plague Year, Dracula’s need for blood as a critique of capitalism, and about how choosing not to vaccinate as a privileged, less-at risk family, isn’t ethical. That immunization is about the community, and as much as we’d like to think of our bodies as distinct islands, we’re truly interconnected. While Biss states that the decision to vaccinate her son was an ethical decision, one that she felt she had to do despite its risks, Boggs also states that IVF was the best choice she and her husband ever made because they conceived their daughter. And while she may believe this personally, she says this without reflecting on its ethical underpinnings, like what this means for the habitability of our planet. Boggs talks about the ways infants vie for resources in the wild, but not the ways limited resources will play out for human and nonhuman animals in the near future. Many people are choosing not to have children for the good of the planet. Because of the carbon footprint. And to not consider this interconnection in this highly personal decision is an avoidance I can’t not think about, perhaps fixate on, in relation to this book and discussion. Maybe it is enough for Boggs herself to “[tell] the stories that don’t get told, the ones some people don’t want to hear,” of what she and her husband learned before they had their daughter -- of the little known difficulties and travails of adoption, the infertility message boards and support groups, the way that passion and pleasure are replaced with clinical monitoring and pharmaceutical intervention and hormonal regulation associated with in vitro fertilization. But The Art of Waiting isn’t memoir. It lacks the interrogation and consideration of what it truly means to mother beyond the heteronormative definitions of vaginal birth and sharing your offspring's DNA. Boggs looks to nonhuman animals for answers but lacks interspecies empathy, or openness to other possibilities -- perhaps because she doesn’t care to ask, perhaps because she now has a natural-born child, perhaps because it might cast the best decision that she’s ever made in a more muddled light? It’s obvious Boggs considers herself a success story. With patchwork she’s found a heteronormative solution, in fact, it seems that her answer is that she wishes similar luck for other who long for children. That they might not have to wait so long. This is unfortunately where the discussion rests.
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H.L. Mencken wrote that rubbernecking – that voyeuristic impulse to gawk at someone else’s difficulties – was “almost a complete treatise on American psychology.” The term perfectly describes the recent outpouring of interest in the industrial heartland of the United States, known as the Rust Belt, which has been in decline since the 1970s and which has suffered even more during the recession. First came news stories about places like Dayton, Ohio, where unemployment has more than doubled since the beginning of 2008 thanks to the closing of several manufacturing plants, or Gary, Indiana, the home of the largest integrated steel mill in the northern hemisphere, where an average of one person a week is murdered and over a quarter of its residents live below the poverty line. Then came the literary interest: 2009 saw the publication of books such as Nick Reding’s Methland: The Death and Life of a Small American Town, Patrick Carr and Maria Kefalas’s Hollowing Out the Middle: The Rural Brain Drain and What it Means for America, and Bonnie Jo Campbell’s American Salvage, all of which catalogued the various social and personal ills, and the universal sense of despair about the future, that plague Rust Belt cities and towns. In the crowded field of “recession literature,” however, Philipp Meyer’s relentlessly pessimistic debut novel American Rust has attracted an outsized share of acclaim and attention, and deservedly so. The book follows Isaac English and Billy Poe, two friends whose families have anchored them to the steelworking town of Buell, Pennsylvania. Isaac is the smartest kid in the entire county, but is stuck tending to his disabled father and trying to understand his mother’s recent suicide. Billy, meanwhile, passed up an offer to play football at Colgate College just because he was too stubborn to leave. At the ripe old age of twenty, both can already see an unfulfilling future stretching out in front of them. So Isaac strikes out for California. In his head he takes on the persona of “the kid,” a modern-day Huck Finn figure whose idea of freedom involves studying astrophysics at Lawrence Livermore. On the way to the Pittsburgh rail yards, he runs into Billy Poe, and the two take shelter from the rain in an abandoned factory. Unknowingly, they have trespassed on the territory of three vagrants who assault Billy and hold him at knife-point, and Isaac is forced to kill one of them in order to save his friend. Both boys panic and hastily try to cover up their crime, and in doing so reveal the self-destructive tendencies that consume them over the course of the novel. The next day, the police arrest Billy, who feels that he has little choice but to take the blame for a crime he did not commit. He stubbornly refuses to implicate Isaac or even talk to a public defender, which lands him in prison; there, his hair-trigger temper makes him an outcast among outcasts. Meanwhile, Isaac treats his escape as an adventure at first, but eventually his guilt at abandoning his father and sister slowly consumes him, and the picaresque tale of “the kid” takes on more and more false bravado with each humiliation that he endures, from washing himself in the bathroom of a diner to getting his money stolen by a tramp. The murder begins to poison those who have a stake in Billy’s and Isaac’s future as well. Billy’s mother Grace despairs that her decision to stay in the Valley, and her refusal to throw her deadbeat husband Virgil out of her life altogether, has robbed her of a career and a a son. Isaac’s sister Lee feels like she has to save both her brother Isaac and her former lover Billy, whom she abandoned for the Ivy League and an unfulfilling marriage to a wealthy classmate. And local police chief Bud Harris, who once convinced the local prosecutor to dismiss an assault charge against Billy, wonders whether he should try to save the boy a second time, or whether such an effort will prove as effective as “trying to catch a body falling from a skyscraper.” American Rust is an ambitious book, both in terms of its structure (it follows six narrators) and its subject (“the ugly reverse of the American Dream,” according to one character). As a result, it occasionally loses its focus. At times, the reader can at times get lost in a sea of introspection that is leavened only occasionally with action. Certain passages sag under the weight of the characters’ regret, indecision, and self-loathing, and the plot takes a long time to develop forward momentum; the murder takes place at the end of the first chapter, but it is not until about halfway through the book that Poe gets arrested and Isaac begins hopping trains for points west. Meyer also cannot resist an ostentatious tribute to his literary forebears once in a while. For example, Isaac’s sister Lee broods over the relative merits of James Joyce, Henry James, and Jean-Paul Sartre for almost an entire page (there is no other literary criticism in the entire novel), and Meyer tells the reader several times that Isaac’s mother killed herself by filling her overcoat pockets with stones and drowning herself, a grisly tribute to Virginia Woolf. Finally, the ending, which sees Bud Harris transform from a beleaguered Good Samaritan into a self-serving vigilante, feels unearned; nothing in the first 300 pages of the book sets up such a drastic personality change. Still, these authorial missteps do not really detract from the book’s ability to portray the Rust Belt in new, unsparing, and unsentimental ways. Ten years ago, fictional post-industrial towns served merely as stages on which to act out much larger melodramas. In Richard Russo’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Empire Falls, for example, misery comes not from large, impersonal forces but from the choices that the characters themselves make. Russo is much more raconteur than social commentator, however, which gives him the freedom to write in a decidedly tragicomic mode, and to make his characters relatively ambivalent about their own hardships; at one point, the novel’s protagonist, Miles Roby, asks, “If I was so unhappy, wouldn’t I know?” The plot of Empire Falls, in other words, just happens to be set in a declining mill town in Maine, and although there are moments of genuine suffering and humiliation in Russo’s novel, they are the exception rather than the rule. In American Rust, the setting is the story. Isaac and Billy’s hometown of Buell is a stand-in for any number of Rust Belt towns like Dayton and Gary: its factories have been shut and its good jobs have been gone for nearly two decades, its former steelworkers, who in the 1980s made twenty dollars an hour, now bag groceries for less than five, and neither its residents nor its municipal government can make ends meet. Besides getting the economic indicators right, Meyer understands that socioeconomic malaise and personal malaise are two sides of the same coin. He shows, through the eyes of each of the main characters, the human consequences of a sick economy, which include desperation, psychic distress, moral confusion, and the real or imagined loss of one’s free will. He has the luxury of space and unmediated access to his characters’ thoughts, which allows him to explore a familiar topic – the effects of a prolonged economic downturn – in ways that writers of non-fiction cannot. As a result, American Rust provides a gentle corrective to the kind of fact-and-statistic-based reportage that focuses more on rubrics and measurements (punctuated, of course, by the occasional human interest story) than the recession’s non-economic effect on individuals. A newspaper article about a rise in shoplifting, for instance, provokes quiet a different reaction from the reader than Isaac’s theft of an overcoat from a Wal-Mart: The other customers stared intently at their merchandise until he passed. Embarrassed to look at you. Who wouldn’t be? Except the kid does not care. Possessed of a higher mission—self-improvement. Resource gathering. Like the original man—starts from scratch. A new society. Beginning in Men’s Outerwear. All those coats. Never know how much you value a coat. Took months to make in the old days. Now you just go to a store. Don’t be nervous, she’s looking at you. The novel is also much-needed challenge to the kind of myth-making that the political commentariat has forced down Americans’ throats over the past few years. One the one hand, there are the wedge-drivers like Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck, who pit a mythological “real America” (blue-collar, religious, small town, uncorrupted) against the so-called “coastal elites.” On the other, there are the tone-deaf and the contemptuous. At a San Francisco fundraiser in April of 2008, for example, then-candidate Barack Obama nearly derailed his primary campaign by commenting about small Pennsylvania towns where people “get bitter” and “cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them.” And New York Times columnist Frank Rich has spent the better part of a year celebrating the slow and violent death of “a dwindling white nonurban America that is aflame with grievances and awash in self-pity as the country hurtles into the 21st century and leaves it behind.” Clearly, it is much easier to misrepresent places like Buell for the sake of political gain, or else to dismiss them as irrelevant and insignificant, than it is to treat them without cynicism or contempt. How, then, to categorize this book? Like Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle and George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, American Rust documents the psychological and moral tangle that comes with poverty, something that people with savings accounts, secure jobs, and enough disposable income to spend on a hardcover book usually cannot intuit, or else choose to forget. In stylistic terms, Meyer’s clipped, stream-of-consciousness narration brings to mind not only the modernists (Hemingway, Woolf, Joyce) but also Cormac McCarthy, especially when Isaac begins to refer to himself as “the kid,” just like the narrator of Blood Meridian. The book’s dust jacket provides the most commercially shrewd answer to the question of literary descent, however. American Rust, it says, belongs with “Steinbeck’s novels of restless lives during the Great Depression.” On the surface, the comparison seems fair; both Meyer and Steinbeck wrote about times of extraordinary economic insecurity, both created characters who struggle for independence despite their circumstances, and, most of all, both resisted the easy sentimentality of many writers of “regional” fiction. But there are no Tom Joads in Buell, Pennsylvania, and Philipp Meyer is no romantic. Steinbeck’s fiction, though often stark, had brave heroes, clear moral lessons, and even the barest hints of redemption playing about their edges. In American Rust, poverty does not ennoble the dispossessed; instead, it leads them down the path of moral hazard, where they rationalize theft, murder, and other bad decisions in the name of survival. At best, the constant presence of the characters’ internal monologues allows the reader to understand, if not pardon, their worst choices. Meyer also does not share Steinbeck’s tendency to sermonize. There are a few grand pronouncements about The Way Things Are (“We’re trending backwards as a nation, probably for the first time in history, and it’s not the kids with the green hair and the bones through their noses.”), but Meyer always dilutes them by putting them in the mouths of secondary characters, or else by immediately exposing them in a character’s internal monologue as empty clichés: In the end it was rust. That was what defined this place. A brilliant observation. She was probably about the ten millionth person to think it. Ultimately, American Rust is not a hymn to the fraying brotherhood of man, and its characters do not survive for the sake of illustrating how despair fortifies the spirit or poverty strips away all pretenses or some other uplifting observation about the human condition. Instead, Meyer insists only that his readers pay attention, even (or perhaps especially) to those whose main accomplishment is the simple act of carrying on, of finding the desire to “keep setting one foot in front of the other.” In that sense his goal is at once humble and profound, and deeply sympathetic to those who can only seek imperfect improvements upon unacceptable circumstances.
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