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Fright and friendship

Much hyped in the United States at the moment is the writer Philipp Meyer (1974). He has already been compared with Steinbeck and Kerouac thanks to his choice of literary theme: the economic problems involved in rural labour. His tone has been linked with that of Salinger. And his first novel, American Rust (2009), has already been translated into eight languages (in Dutch it goes by the name Roest).

American Rust is about failed dreams in a region where most people are out of work because of the declining industrial base. Isaac English, the brightest kid in the valley, has to take care of his invalid father and so is deprived of going to college. His mother has committed suicide and his sister has escaped town and got married. Isaac’s friend Poe could have had a bright future as a baseball player, but because of his lack of perseverance, he is still living in a trailer with his mother and constantly getting into fights.

One day, Isaac runs away to try his luck in California. Poe joins him for the first few miles. Then they get involved in a fight, which changes both their worlds. A prove of loyalty follows.

One of the main characters plays the central role in each chapter. Meyer describes not only their actions, but also their inner dialogues. Their thinking is reflected in the use of language: fast, direct and sometimes telegram style, which reflects how they make their decisions and do what they do. The nice side effect of this is that it makes you an accomplice rather than merely an observer.

The world in American Rust is rough and frightening. Meyer himself worked as a construction worker, which probably explains why he is able to describe Isaac and Poe’s world so naturally. You can’t be sure you won’t get jumped or catch a knife between the ribs, and you might lose your job at any time. This all is quite depressing – but somehow the characters manage to remain hopeful that life will be better in the future.


Welmoed Hoogvorst



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