Steel. Its industry once supported entire regions of the United States.
When factories starting going under, the towns they kept afloat did as well. Philipp Meyer’s American Rust is the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle selection for Week Seven, and it is a story of one of these cities. As the book demonstrates, wide-scale collapse cuts much deeper than just the economy.
Meyer will speak about writing his first novel at the CLSC Roundtable discussion at 3:30 p.m. today in the Hall of Philosophy, and he is no stranger to this subject.
His family moved to Baltimore in the 1970s, the decade that saw the downfall of the shipyard, auto plants and steel mills — the same collapse that was happening across the country. Growing up, Meyer was basically a delinquent, he confessed. He dropped out of high school and later went back to get his GED. A few of his mentors talked him into going to college, and it aroused his ambition.
While attending community colleges around Baltimore, he began applying to Ivy League schools, and after many rejections, he was accepted to Cornell University.
He graduated and then worked for a time as a Wall Street trader. Eventually, he found his work unsatisfying, and 10 years later, he moved back to Baltimore to focus on writing, his calling.
“To me, writing doesn’t feel like deskwork,” he said. “It’s not even something I do; it’s just who I am. So when I’m writing, I don’t really think about anything else.”
He started to write American Rust, a novel set within fallen industry. Meyer said he has a mistrust of autobiography, so instead of Baltimore, a city with too many personal associations, he decided to place his novel in Buell, Penn., a fictional town in the Monongahela Valley. Yet the Mon Valley, as it’s known, really did have a large steel industry. Unfortunately, when it left town, it took all the prosperity with it.
“Economically distressed is a polite term for it,” Meyer said. “It’s for the most part extremely poor. There’s tons of abandoned houses; there are parts in which you wonder if you’re in a developing country rather than America, because folks really have nothing.”
The story is based around two young men from Buell: Isaac English, a smart but somewhat bitter young man, and Billy Poe, his best friend and a former high school football star who has a problem with his temper. Both skipped college against the advice of others. Although Isaac’s older sister Lee went to Yale University, he stayed in Buell to take care of his father, who was injured in an industrial accident. Poe, who had a shot at a scholarship playing football, instead is on probation for assault.
The book shifts points of view each chapter among six main characters, and readers are invited into the minds of each through stream-of-consciousness prose. It starts off with Isaac, who is trying to make his escape to California by hopping trains. He brings along Billy, and things go well until they get into a scuffle in an abandoned steel plant along the way. A homeless man ends up dead, and rather than report the incident as what it is, self-defense, they try to put it aside.
Because of this, Billy ends up in jail and Isaac on the road, skipping town and fleeing authorities. One bad decision after another unfolds with the book, and the suspense grows. Meyer chronicles not just the lives of his characters but the way of life in tarnished, ex-steel towns, as well.
To research for American Rust, Meyer traveled to Pennsylvania and made trips throughout the Mon Valley, interviewing dozens of locals, steel workers, ministers and justices of the peace. He walked most of the routes the main character Isaac walked and hopped trains just the same. He walked into bars and struck up conversations.
“It’s a small town,” Meyer said. “They recognize me: ‘Oh, you’re not from here.’ They know everyone in town and wonder why you’re there.”
What he saw was familiar to parts of Baltimore: once-proud people who had the rug pulled from under them. Unable to afford food or pay rent, people who used to earn $50,000 a year now were making $4 an hour bagging groceries, if they were lucky, he said.
“Anyone losing their job can tell you that it’s like a huge blow to your ego and your sense of self,” he said. “Especially these guys, these women who are making a good middle-class income, and all of a sudden, all these jobs go. Their entire way of life goes away; their entire way they see the world changes.”
Some in the Mon Valley were able to move out of town and find new jobs, many in Texas in the oil and gas drilling industry. Meyer said he sees this as one of the last few blue-collar jobs that can help workers support their families. Yet those who stayed had to struggle to retain hope. When the jobs go, alcoholism rates skyrocket, as do suicides.
When boards of directors or CEOs makes a choice to close a factory, Meyer said, they do not understand the ripple effect that spreads to the worker and their family and friends. Many lost faith in the system because it failed them.
It is an injustice, but it is not the political aim of the book to make a case against corporate policies, Meyer said. Though he has been compared to John Steinbeck, he makes a distinction in that Steinbeck was aiming to write a political novel and finally realized his goal in The Grapes of Wrath.
For Meyer, the closer resemblance is to someone like James Joyce, for the way the characters’ thoughts drive the story. The politics, if anything, are subtext, and the art of the story is what is forefront in his mind, he said.
“I think that if you’re trying to make strong political point, you put it in an essay,” Meyer said. “There is lots of art that has political meaning, like ‘Guernica,’ the painting, but in the end, it’s a piece of art first and a political thing third or fourth or fifth, and that’s what I think about my work, too.”
Philipp Meyer grew up in Baltimore, dropped out of high school, and got
his GED when he was 16. After spending several years volunteering at a
medical trauma center in downtown Baltimore, he studied English at
Cornell University. Meyer has worked as a derivatives trader at UBS, a
construction worker, and an EMT, among other jobs. His writing has
appeared in McSweeney’s, The Iowa Review and New Stories from the South.