At the LARB, Anne Trubek quotes Lionel Trilling in a review of The Son and American Rust, the two books published thus far by New Yorker 20 Under 40 alum Phillipp Meyer. “In the American metaphysic,” Trilling wrote in his essay “Reality in America,” “reality is always material reality, hard, resistant, unformed, impenetrable, and unpleasant.” Those of you who read our pieces on both books may be able to guess why the quote is relevant.
Out this month, Philipp Meyer’s second novel, The Son, is equal parts generational epic and ruthlessly unsentimental creation myth. Tracing the ascendency of a Texas family begat by Eli McCullough, a man kidnapped in his boyhood and raised by his Comanche captors, the only constant in the lives of his descendants, through decades of frontier poverty to eventual oil-baron opulence, is violence. I spoke to Meyer in his New York apartment.
The Millions: Before starting American Rust, you wrote a few novels that were never published.
Philipp Meyer: Yeah, I wrote one, started in my undergrad and finished it my first year. Quickly realized it was a turd. Then I began writing a second book, which kind gave me the balls to leave this banking job. I was unreasonably confident. I had been reading about all these young writers who were making it, and so I thought, “Shit, if they’re doing it, I can too,” which, you know, was completely delusional. Once I finished that book, I had run out of the money, moved back in with my parents, was working these blue collar jobs. I applied to grad schools and got turned down by all of them. That was the most dark and depressed period I’ve had. That was around early ‘04, and by September ‘04, I had written maybe two stories that were working, and sent them off to some magazines. When I got a call from the Iowa Review, they told me right away that they were taking my piece. I actually broke down and cried for a few hours after they called. It’s been a consistent climb from that moment.
TM: Now that you’re established, do you feel like you write for the same reasons now as you did when you were a struggling, unpublished author?
PM: Yeah, nothing’s changed. If I had one worry, it’s that when you start getting told “Yes” constantly—and you see this in all great artists—you get worse. Maybe you run out of juice. I don’t think you do; I think your standards just drop with time. For now, there’s no doubt in my mind about my standards: I’m harder on my own work than anyone else on earth is. When this book sold in June of ’11, there was a huge bidding war. Most people I talked to were like, “I know it needs work, but not too much. Maybe a month or two.” Meanwhile, I’m thinking it needs a year of work, but I didn’t want to fuck anything up. So I sold it thinking it had another year left of work on it. I was wrong. It had eighteen months. I did three more passes on the book, complete rewrites. I worked on it full time non-stop, and that’s the final version.
TM: When you’re writing just for yourself, you’re filled with ambitions and aspirations that are private and intimate and wildly delusional. But when anyone can read your work, and tells you what they think about it, do you internalize their comments as you start writing the next book?
PM: You fight that – tooth and nail. It’s usually just when you’re most unsure and insecure about the work that those voices of doubt get amplified. I remember my roommate back at Michener had won this enormous literary prize the first year we were there. It was like $90 grand. I wasn’t even a finalist, and that summer, I kept reading his book that had won this prize, comparing it to mine, reading the book, comparing it to mine. Finally, when I was at an artists colony, I was fucking miserable. I told this person there what was happening, and she said, “Throw that thing away immediately. You can’t even think about him. You have to flush this out of your mind. Throw it away. Really throw it away.” I did, and she was right. I felt better immediately.
MFA workshops can be really destructive for that. There was a lady I was in workshop with – she has a really big book out –she used to take tranquilizers before workshop. And I developed my own way to work around them: people would be talking, and I would have a pad in front of me, and I’d be making grocery lists, a list of hunting gear I needed for some hunting trip, and I’d look like I was writing – “Oh, yeah, oh great” –because I didn’t want to hurt people’s feelings, but I’d really be working on something else, something mundane that really pulls your mind out of it. I did that constantly.
Even early on when I was writing this book, I was feeling unsure of it, wondering, “Well, what’s Michiko Kakutani going to think of this?” But then as the book developed and I understood what it’s actually about, those voices went away. It’s when you’re feeling the most lost and you’re feeling the most need for approval that’s when you can’t show shit to anyone. When you most need to show it to someone because you need to be told it’s good and that you’re a genius, you can never fucking show it to anyone. Now, that’s very clear to me.
TM: Eli says, “There’s no point being a small man.” Once you reach that point where you’re happy with the work, you know it’s good, are you already thinking about legacy?
PM: Yeah, of course. I was thinking about legacy when I sucked as well. Salman Rushdie gave a talk to my class at Michener. It was great because he had two failed novels. He said, “Of course I thought my early works were works of genius. And they sucked.” I think that delusion is crucial.
TM: Martin, the only writer in The Son, a young poet, after acting a coward for his entire appearance in the book, is suddenly emboldened in the face of death: he accepts death standing. The last thing he speaks about before being carried off to die are all the poems he’ll now never be able to write. Is that what he’s thinking about as he’s being killed? What is it about that thought that gives him courage?
PM: Yeah. Of course this guy knew he was going to die for a long time, so he’s gone to that place from his disconnection of reality and pure ego. Though I remember once when I was on this plane that lost power—this is when I was working on my second novel—and the engine noise just stopped. We were plummeting. The stewardess comes on and says, “We can’t help you. Stay in your seats.” Everyone looks around – this is right after 9/11, a year after – and everyone’s getting their cellphones out cause they’re like, “Oh shit. This is actually it.” I just remember watching the ground get closer and closer and closer. I was sitting next to my then-fiancée, but all thought was, “Oh my God, I haven’t finished my book; I haven’t finished my book.” It felt so unfair. I wasn’t even thinking about this woman next to me.
Ten years ago, I thought that this book was my way into immortality. A buddy of mine who’s had a pretty huge, fucking beautiful successful book—we were drunk and talking a couple of years ago, and he said, “Fuck all man, you live forever because of these things.” For some reason, I’ve stopped thinking that way now. At some point all literary works begin to lose relevance. Something comes along that’s better; it captures the vernacular or the method of storytelling is better, and it will last a hundred, two hundred, five hundred years.
TM: In one of the most disturbing scenes in the book, a white buffalo poacher is kidnapped by the same band of Comanches and is publically tortured in their camp, much to the delight of everyone but Eli. Does his compassion indicate that he’s a better person than the rest of his tribe, or simply that he’s been schooled in different notions of right and wrong? Can one locate a moral compass of any kind in The Son?
PM: Hopefully. I wrote that scene the way I did because that is the way that Eli would react. But how much of that is Eli’s “whiteness”? To all of these people the buffalo poacher is the Other, he’s pure enemy. But to Eli, he can’t be. There’s a much later scene in Peter’s section, which I removed probably because it was a too gratuitous, where Eli hangs a guy. (This is when Eli is an old man.) Eli basically does the same thing [as the Comanches]. It’s something that both sides did.
If there’s a moral purpose to the book, it’s to put our history, the history of this country, into a context. We butchered and killed our way across the continent and took every inch of it by force, or bought it for seven bucks. But on the other hand, the Native American tribes in Texas, like all humans across the entire earth, butchered and conquered and attacked their weaker neighbors and took land. In Texas, the Apaches come in and wipe out all of the other native tribes except for a few. A hundred years later, the Comanches come and do the same thing to them. And if there’s any point to the book, in the sense of having a moral direction, it’s to contextualize our creation myth.
TM: The most troubled characters are the ones most intimately tied to the land. Often they comfort themselves by naming local wildflowers, discerning animal tracks others had missed. Is there something more valuable in living in a place you’ve helped settle than living in, say, New York City?
PM: In theory no. But if you look at the narratives of captivities in the region, there were hundreds of thousands of Indian captivities along the frontier, and hundreds of thousands of Indian children forcibly raised in white society. One thing consistent across both those storylines is that modern Europeans folks who were taken into Indian captivity pre-puberty, often did not want to go back. On the other hand, the reverse is not true at all. Native American kids who were raised as white were almost always unhappy and often did want to go back to their tribe. No matter what the Indian tribes are and no matter what European group you’re talking about – Scotch, English, Swedish, German – it’s always the same: the people who are going and connecting with the land don’t want to come back, and people who are forced to live in structured modern society do want to go back.
TM: What do you think of American fiction today? What’s the state of things?
PM: I think this is a very, very, very good time for fiction. As writers, we’re always reacting against the artistic movements or our forefathers. The one we’re coming out of right now is hardcore, post-modern deconstructionist stuff. It is a useful tool in the toolbox, but as a way of expressing human life, human relations, the human condition, it is the most narrow and awful movement that has ever fucking existed. None of that stuff moves me. The artistic movement that best reflected human existence were the Modernists, and unfortunately, all the post-modernists were reacting against Woolf and Hemingway and fucking Joyce. I’m so happy to be comparing my stuff to Barth and Gass and Pynchon. Fucking bring it on!
Because I must read for my work, there are always two book lists winding their way through my life. There are the books that I must read for my job –not that I am complaining, for the most part I love these titles, and anyway, who wouldn’t want to be paid to read? – but then there are also the books that I read for myself.
Very often the books that I read for myself are last year’s books – or older – that I never got around to reading at the time of their release but now cannot bear to leave behind. So I sneak them in on weekends and evenings and during long subway rides.
Among 2010 titles, there were so many winners on my list that it’s hard to pick favorites. But on the nonfiction side perhaps The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson, Travels in Siberia by Ian Frazier, and The Chocolate Wars, by Deborah Cadbury did the best job of either surprising, teaching, and/or impressing me – all for completely different reasons.
Among fiction titles, I especially enjoyed the cleverness of 36 Arguments for the Existence of God by Rebecca Goldstein, the enchantment of Ruby’s Spoon by Anna Lawrence Pietroni, and the lovely precision of Tinkers by Paul Harding.
The books that I read for myself this year were mostly fiction. My only real criterion for picking them was that I thought I would like them. For the most part I was right, but there was one particularly good streak when I read three books in a row that turned out to be three of my absolute favorites. These were In Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Daniyal Mueenuddin, American Rust by Philipp Meyer, and The City and the City by China Mieville. Maybe someone will see a pattern here but I do not. It seems to me that each one appealed to a completely different side of my being for a reason uniquely its own.
Then there were two more titles that I must add. They were not part of that magic streak, but they belong on this list. One is the linked short story collection Ms. Hempel Chronicles by Sarah Shun-lien Bynum which I think I will have to add my list of all-time favorites. Something about it – so simple yet so evocative – appealed to me enormously.
And then there was The Appointment by Herta Muller. I picked it up simply because she won the Nobel Prize and yet I knew so little about her. The edition that I found had her Nobel lecture appended to the end and I’m so glad that it did. I think that Muller’s description of the handkerchief drawer in her childhood home, with her father’s, her mother’s, and her tiny child’s handkerchiefs all lined up in separate compartments in the same drawer – the drawer from which her mother pulled a handkerchief to bring with her the day she was taken away and interrogated – will stay with me forever.
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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.