Wednesday, May 12, 2010

“American Rust” by Philipp Meyer

I buy, borrow, and read a fair number of books each year. But I don’t tend to read many book reviews, other than an occasional glance at the mini-review in The New Yorker.  Instead, I rely on word-of-mouth – my family and friends always end up talking about what we’re reading; picking up whatever an old reliable writer has out; and grazing the literary fiction tables (‘our picks,’ ‘new in paperback’, ‘buy two, get one free’), where I buy based on cover, title, and blurb.

That’s how I found Philipp Meyer’s American Rust, which I’d never heard of, although it was published in 2009 to no small acclaim.

I’m no literary critic, so I can’t offer up any high-falutin’ review here, other than to say that I loved this book without much of any reservation. But since this is a blog about business and the economy, I will write about the related issues that underpin and inform Meyer’s novel.

Without giving away any of the plot – which is certainly compelling -  the story revolves around (and is delivered from the viewpoint of) six principal characters who live in (and, in one case, escaped from) a grim, near-dead steel town in the Mon(ongahela) Valley of Pennsylvania. (The town is the fictional Buell, but the setting and circumstances couldn’t be more real.)  That a couple of the characters are old enough to remember when the town was vibrant is a poignant counter-point to the experiences of the younger characters, who have little or no recall of the big-shoulder, blue-collar prosperity that was once there.

The steel mills in this area started going out in the 1970’s and 1980’s, and everyone by now knows the story of how American steel failed to invest in plant modernization (as their counterparts in other industrial nations, namely Japan and Germany did), which led to the collapse of the industry, the loss of hundreds of thousands of dirty, dangerous, yet head-held-high and decent paying blue collar jobs. Jobs that were replaced for the lucky few (or their children) by work in newer, cleaner, moderne  industries. And replaced for the many with low-pay, low-skill, low-pride jobs greeting shoppers, bagging groceries, and emptying bedpans. (One of the characters had been offered a job capping landfills.)

For those of us who live in areas that have been post-industrial – and relatively successful – for decades, American Rust is a grim reminder of the other America where houses go for $40K, the only restaurants are down at the heels bar and grilles that stay alive by peddling drugs out the back door, and where the elegant old 19th century City Hall has to be abandoned for a soulless cinder block municipal building because the town can’t afford the upkeep.

The folks in these areas don’t piss and moan because there’s no Nordstrom’s in walking distance. They don’t pray for a Wegman’s to open nearby.  They don’t indulge in an occasional frappacinno. If they’re lucky, a Walmart’ll open on the outskirts of town and they’ll see if they can luck into one of the keep-your-mouth shut minimum wage jobs there.

It’s a scary world, that’s for sure, as we thud up against the mess of pottage reality that we have collectively beggared ourselves for: an MP3 player in every ear and a flat screen TV on every wall.

Globalization is inevitable (and, on balance, a good thing). If we have to consume a bit less so that others can have a bit more, so be it.

But, damn, didn’t “we” run into the techno-global embrace  so wantonly and recklessly – and it felt so fine at the macro-level, didn’t it - that we ignored the micro reality of the millions of individuals and their families whose lives have been irreparably damaged by the trade-offs we’ve made, and not just materially. But, hey, their own damned fault. Should have gone to college and majored in computer science. (No, wait, those jobs are going away, too.)

I don’t want to live in a planned economy, where the only thing on offer are pairs of gack-colored shoes with two left feet.

But I wouldn’t mind if we had an economy that was a bit more – sorry to use a non-word here – planful.

Maybe we’re just going to have to suck up the lack of economic stability in the brave new world, and get on with our lives in  a society where being an American (for most people) means patching together a makeshift livelihood, made a bit more palatable by an occasional breakfast at Denny’s and the NFL on Sunday.

This sure doesn’t sound like the recipe for political stability, though.

It’s been over 40 years since I was a high school kid reading Grapes of Wrath, but Philipp Meyer’s doing for the folks of steel-country what Steinbeck did for the Okies. Putting a face on it, and putting voices (and heart) to it. (If Bruce Springsteen wrote a novel, this would be it.)

American Rust is highest-order fiction, with a strong political and economic sensibility. But it’s never agitprop – no wooden, spouting characters here. (Think: antithesis of Ayn Rand.)

This is a good and important book, and I’m giving it the Pink Slip Seal of Approval. I didn’t want it to end, and right now I’m hoping that Meyer’s has it in him to give us a sequel, so that we can read the new chapter in the book of Buell, Pennsylvania, and the lives of Isaac, Poe, Lee, Grace, Harris, and Henry.

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