16 October 2009

American Rust

by Philipp Meyer

Allen and Unwin. Adult Other. Paperback RRP $32.99

Guest Reviewer - Anastasia Gonis

The title of this dark but compelling novel is a metaphor for the slow decay of life in rural America from opportunities lost along with jobs and hope. Through the lives of the characters and their predicaments, we view lives spiralling out of control from one unpredictable event that leads to a sequence of irreversible decisions.

Isaac and his sister Lee are the smartest kids in the county. Lee, by going on to Yale, escaped all responsibility for her damaged father. Isaac chose to stay and care for him after an accident left him in a wheelchair. His mother also escaped by exiting the picture by drowning herself five years previously. But now Isaac has decided at last to get away and start a new life using the large sum of money stolen from his father’s stash. He goes in search of his friend Billy Poe in the hope that they can make the escape together.

Billy is a failure due to his disregard of the countless opportunities life presented to him. His father has abandoned them and his mother, Grace, a gentle and loving person has failed to replace him permanently with anyone worthwhile, regardless of her on again-off again relationship with the loyal Bud, their county sheriff.

Billy consents to accompany Isaac for part of the way. They find shelter in an abandoned barn which is also the stopping place of several other fugitives who come upon the two boys. Isaac feels uncomfortable in their presence and decides to leave. Billy as usual, postpones making a decision and remains. But Isaac returns soon after to find Billy at knife point and the incident that follows sweeps the boys’ future out from under them.

Meyer has captured a real sense of time and place. The six parts of the book examine the damage done to each individual life by the choices they made. The language, like the story, is hard and gritty, and the fine line between life and death is always visible. It’s a book that won’t be easily put down.


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