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.
“Tell me what you eat,” wrote Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, “and I will tell you what you are.” His magnum opus, The Physiology of Taste , was gastronomy’s answer to Diderot’s Encyclopedia or Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason: technique by technique, principle by principle, Brillat-Savarin relentlessly marches through the catalog of la gourmanidse and lays out, in his words, nothing less than the “eternal foundation” for “a new science”—the science of gastronomy—that would “nourish, restore, preserve, persuade, and console us; a science which, not content with strewing flowers in the path of the individual, also contributes in no small measure to the strength and prosperity of empires.”
In many ways, The Physiology of Taste applied the essence of Enlightenment thought to food, cooking, and eating. It is a massive and thorough discourse written by an author supremely confident in his ability to know himself and all of his faculties, from consumption to cognition, in perfect detail. Brillat-Savarin sought to train mankind’s collective palate and teach everyone the joys of cooking and dining through the science of gastronomy. But that science is strangely limited in scope as well. According to Brillat-Savarin, gourmandism is a science of pleasure-making, training in aesthetic judgment, the gifts of the muse Gasterea—and nothing else.
Even though Brillat-Savarin used the language and structure of Enlightenment thought, he followed the dictum of the Greek philosopher Epictetus: “do not discourse how people ought to eat; but eat as you ought.”
In fact, food writers have taken that advice to heart since Brillat-Savarin’s time. They have felt free to recall, meditate, and describe, from Marcel Proust’s tea-soaked madeleine to Julia Child’s sole meunière, but they never connected food with morality, only competing tastes. The topic even blunted the sharpest pens of the nineteenth century. H.L. Mencken reminisced about oyster fritters and soft-shell crabs in “The Baltimore of The Eighties,” but made only a passing mention of the pollution that would later render the Patapsco River one of the first identified marine dead zones in the world. Likewise, Mark Twain wrote enough about food to fill a book, though it’s probably too much of a stretch to call him a “locavore,”, since it sounds like Twain’s preference for local food was more of a logistical rather than a moral issue.
It took socialists to first convince people that food issues extended well beyond the dinner plate. Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle famously exposed the near-complete lack of concern for food safety in the meatpacking industry, and George Orwell spent a surprising amount of his literary life defending roast beef, bread-and-drippings, and the English way of making tea from the encroachment of margarine and tin cans. “We may find in the long run that tinned food is a deadlier weapon than the machine-gun,” he wrote in The Road to Wigan Pier, without any irony whatsoever: he believed that industrialism meant the decline of man’s moral, intellectual, and physical health, and nowhere was this decline more apparent than in the English kitchen.
Still, these books were intended to be more like John Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle and less like Fast Food Nation—that is, arguments for the justice and moral rectitude of socialism, not merely calls for better food regulation. As Sinclair later complained, “I aimed for the nation’s heart and hit its stomach.”
After World War II, as the world grew accustomed to frozen vegetables and Jell-O molds, the vast majority of food writing turned anodyne. Food essays tended to resemble extended essays, a sort of verbal channeling of the Platonic form of a particular dish or technique. It was, and still is, the most common kind of food writing, produced by critics and chefs alike, from James Beard to Nigella Lawson. Entertaining (and appetite-whetting) though these may books might be, all of them are fairly low-risk and low-stakes. Most examples are panegyrics to one dish or ingredient or technique, and the rest are simply culinary relativism, an attempt to show that one thing is better than another. It’s the same ground that Brillat-Savarin had covered a century prior.
But a few writers have always aspired to more. In the 60s and 70s, travel writers showed that the “went there, ate that” travelogue could, in fact, have a point beyond mere description: Paul Theroux, for instance, found that the dismal dining cars in the Orient Express mirrored the famous route’s general decline. British food columnist Jane Grigson, meanwhile, wrote miniature biographies of vegetables in an attempt to sketch the outlines of what are now, a bit awkwardly, called “foodways”; her London Times counterpart, Michael Bateman, agitated for better school lunches and exposed food industry malpractices before launching the Campaign for Real Bread, which championed local bakers over the “technological bread” of industrial plants.
Still, most modern American food writers see themselves not as the heirs of these gastronomical torch-bearers, but as the descendants of the ecological movement. It’s no surprise that the name Rachel Carson pops up again and again, from Paul Greenberg’s Four Fish to the pages of Vegetarian Times magazine; after all, many of these writers are trying to expose the environmental damaged caused by agribusiness or commercial fishing in the same way that Carson showed what pesticides were doing to wildlife.
Of course, food matters to most of us far more than water management, wildlife preservation, or even global warming: whether it’s three squares a day or the “efficient, joyless eating” of Dr. Oz, we are forced to see, smell, taste, and think about food every single day.
And that’s why the best food writing has a unique capacity to tell us something about our social norms and attitudes and even, at a stretch, that nebulous idea called the human condition. Sometimes it’s good: the chefs/civic boosters/cultural ambassadors that Anthony Bourdain manages to find around the world, from Caracas to Dubai; Tony Judt’s observation that European multiculturalism extended to his own dining table, too.
But food can also lead us to abandon reason in favor of pure hedonism. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Greenberg’s Four Fish, which manages to find culprits everywhere. There’s the tuna fisherman who says, “I love these fish…but I love to catch them. God, I love to catch them. And I know you need some kind of catch limits because I’d catch all of them if I could.” Or the trochus diver on Cook Island who, when caught harvesting out-of-season, began to cry and asked, “Why? Why did you close the season? There are still some left!” And then there’s us, the fish-eating public, for whom a decade of pressure to pay attention to which fish we eat has amounted to exactly nothing, despite the best efforts of environmentalists, journalists, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium. The moral of the story is the same whether you’re talking about fast food, factory farming, big agribusiness…
Maybe this is why serious food writing has remained blissfully free of moral overtones for much of its existence. As much as we would like to think that we are all Aristotelians (in other words, that we do the right thing without being commanded), when it comes to food, we’ve shown ourselves to be equal parts insatiable and irrational; we’d really rather not think about anything that would threaten that visceral link between food and pleasure. (If anyone needs any further proof—last week, overwhelming consumer feedback forced Frito-Lay to replace its biodegradable Sun Chips bag with a non-biodegradable one simply because it was “too noisy.” Suddenly, we find ourselves fighting a rearguard action: as Michael Pollan shows, we’re cooking much less, we’re eating much worse, and we’re curiously ambivalent the whole thing.
So even though food writing has come a long way from Brillat-Savarin’s little epigrams (“dessert without cheese is like a pretty woman without one eye”), his most memorable claim—“tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are”—is still true. We might like to think about food only in terms of how much pleasure it gives us, whether it’s the collective experience of a good meal or the personal satisfaction of a well-executed dish. But increasingly, food writing prompts us to look beyond the tips of our tongues, and to realize that food can bring out both the best and the worst in all of us.
(Image: Inspecting Tuna, Tokyo Fish Market, 1960s, from jaybergesen’s photostream)
Rob writes in with this question:I’m a seventeen year old who is going to be spending five weeks this summer in Chicago (to be specific – Evanston, since I’ll be part of Northwestern’s summer high school music institute). I’m a life-long New Jerseyan, and have never been in the city of broad shoulders for longer than three days.So, since I like reading books about the place I’m visiting, I was wondering if you could recommend anything that captured the essence of Chicago – I’m looking for works that encapsulate Chicago in the same way Kavalier & Clay encapsulates New York.I was thinking about The Lazarus Project and Carl Sandburg’s work. Do you have any other ideas?Chicago has inspired some of America’s greatest fiction and continues to be a fruitful setting for contemporary writers. I’ve just completed The Lazarus Project (review hopefully forthcoming), and its twinned stories – set in Chicago 1908 and present day Eastern Europe – mine Chicago’s multicultural past and ignominious history. The book, based on the true story of the mysterious death of immigrant Lazarus Averbuch reminded me a lot of The Devil in the White City, Erik Larson’s non-fiction account of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and the serial killer who lurked in its shadows (my review here). Both Devil and Lazarus vividly evoke the chaos of Chicago, a turn of the century boomtown of slaughterhouses, nascent industry, and the first “skyscrapers” that was quickly aligning itself as the country’s center after only decades earlier being its frontier.An interest in this era in Chicago will inevitably lead one to Upton Sinclair, whose 1906 novel The Jungle is a muckraking, contemporary account of the slaughterhouse workers who drove Chicago’s economic engine. The novel is a landmark among American social novels.Jumping forward in time, Chicago produced one of America’s greatest novelists, Saul Bellow, who haunted the hauls of Northwestern in the 1930s. Garth writes that “the greatest Chicago novel ever is The Adventures of Augie March, which is highly recommended for someone who liked Kavalier & Clay.” This contention is hard to dispute.Patrick points us to another, more contemporary literary lodestar for Chicago: “The poet laureate of Chicago is Stuart Dybek (I mean, I don’t think he actually is, I just think he should be). The Coast of Chicago and I Sailed With Magellan are both absolute must reads. They both entirely take place in Chicago (mostly the South Side, but not exclusively). He’s one of my favorite authors, and somebody who should have a much larger audience.”Patrick also throws a more recent selection into the mix: “Also, it’s not like a totally Chicago Chicago book, but I think [Joshua Ferris’s] Then We Came to the End is about Chicago in a really interesting way, as it encapsulates life in the Loop, full of business people commuting from all the suburbs, folks who live in Lincoln Park, people who drive up from the South Side. Plus it’s really fun.”To these I would also add Adam Langer’s well received duo of books set in West Rogers Park, a neighborhood at the northern edge of the city not far from where I used to live: Crossing California and The Washington Story. Finally, anyone interested in Chicago fiction should consider Chris Ware’s landmark graphic novel, Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth. It’s another twinned story, with threads taking place in the near present and during 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, for so many the moment of Chicago’s emergence. Ware’s pathos is haunting and his spare, eccentric drawings are mesmerizing. Along with Devil in the White City, it is a favorite of contemporary Chicagoans.We’ve undoubtedly skipped over much worthy Chicago literature, so please enlighten us with further suggestions in the comments. Rob, thanks for a great question!
A new edition of Voltaire’s Candide with a cover by Chris Ware came out a few months ago. At the time, it was announced that there would other books in this series with covers by other famous artists, and I’ve been waiting to see them ever since. The other other day Penguin’s Summer 2006 catalog arrived, and I was excited to see that the covers are in there. I was going to wait until the pictures were up online somewhere before posting them, but it was taking too long, so I scanned them. Candide is already out, the rest are out on March 28:Fairy Tales by Hans Christian Andersen, Cover by Anders NilsenThe New York Trilogy by Paul Auster, Cover by Art Spiegelman Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons, Cover by Roz ChastThe Portable Dorothy Parker, Cover by Seth The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, Cover by Charles BurnsCandide by Voltaire, Cover by Chris WareSee the full-size pictures hereUpdate: See Part Two