By Philipp Meyer
Spiegel & Grau / 367 pages / $24.95
Isaac English isn't given to idle speculation. Like his friend, Billy Poe, he has to learn his lessons the hard way. American Rust, Philipp Meyer's debut novel, gets its power from their efforts to do just that.
The characters manage (and fail to manage) their complex lives in run-down neighborhoods, where they get drunk, argue, fight, have sex, find and lose hope, kill (by accident), attempt suicide and run away. They also struggle mightily with the meaning of love, not the romance-novel type but the what-would-Jesus-do type. Meanwhile, they turn into blind alleys, add up facts (which aren't facts) and make seemingly small mistakes that turn out to be life-changing. With each misstep, Meyer ratchets up the tension.
After a few chapters, readers have a sense of foreboding. It may be just a minute detail like the man who notices Isaac's money or the coat Billy forgets. But one knows that somebody may - probably will - take advantage. The characters, being otherwise preoccupied, don't understand what's happening until they are hit over the head, beaten up, robbed and left for dead - ugly episodes that Meyer suggests came out of his growing-up years.
Meyer moved to Baltimore's Hampden with his family in the late 1970s when he was 5. He has suggested that this (formerly) blue-collar neighborhood provided lessons in surviving a hardscrabble existence - as did his experiences volunteering for a Baltimore trauma center. One sees evidence of those lessons in this novel's run-down industrial areas, poverty, pathos and boredom.
Meyer's novel is also reminiscent of William Faulkner. Meyer (like Faulkner) builds his characters from the inside out and writes in a stream-of-consciousness style that, at times, is hard to follow, especially when Isaac and Billy muse about the merits of truthfulness in sentences made of fused fragments with little punctuation.
The story, which spans about seven days, begins as Isaac persuades Billy to leave town with him. The two - 20 and 21- are attacked by three thugs, one of whom dies in a scuffle as Isaac attempts to save Billy, a hot-tempered troublemaker. After the authorities discover the death, Billy is a suspect and sent to jail, primarily because he has a bad reputation. Isaac begins an Odysseus-like journey to California. The issue soon becomes who is guilty and who will be saved: Isaac, the soulful, philosophical genius who would never purposely hurt anyone? Or Billy, the football player who, as Meyer describes him, is a magnet for trouble?
Soon, their families become involved. In Isaac's case, it's an older sister, Lee, and his father, Henry. Lee, who feels that her brother has been sacrificed on the altar of her ambition, wants to help him out of this situation, as does his father. Isaac's mother, though she committed suicide several years ago, is a ghostlike presence never far from her son's thoughts. Her suicide has nearly destroyed her family, especially Isaac, who wrestles with the meaning of life, God, religion and the message of Jesus Christ.
Here's one of many examples as seen through Isaac's point of view: "Young man you have plugged Science into the hole left by God. Your mother had the opposite problem: plugged God into a hole left by ... Except she took the secret with her. Chose the next world over this one. ... A slight flaw in her plan - where is she now? Just darkness. If that is what nonexistence is." Billy's mother, Grace (the name isn't an accident), wants to rescue her son - whether he's guilty or not - and enlists the help of Bud Harris, her boyfriend, who is the town sheriff. Harris thinks Billy belongs in jail, but he loves Grace, and wants to help her save her son. What can he do, legally or illegally?
The plot turns on the biblical question, "Am I my brother's keeper?" (One can substitute father, sister, friend or lover.) Will Isaac allow Billy to take the punishment for the crime, or will he admit his own role in the unfortunate circumstance? Billy, who once saved Isaac from drowning, believes that he's fated to help Isaac no matter what. Besides, he loves Isaac's older sister and wants to spare her any grief. As the characters muddle through their lives, they realize that there's no easy solution to their problems.
Meyer makes several references to Jesus' life and frequent allusions to Homer's Odyssey, Joyce's Ulysses, Sartre's Being and Nothingness, and to the story of Abraham and Isaac. In the hands of a less skilled writer, the references could seem heavy-handed and the lengthy soul-searching dull. But Meyer's thriller-type action keeps the story from getting too bogged down in philosophical speculation.