the observer Sun 07 March 2010
Philipp Meyer's debut novel could easily be a regular tale of life on the other side of the tracks. Set in Buell, Pennsylvania, it features a familiar cast: Isaac England, a bright boy who should have gone to college but stayed to look after his disabled father; his best friend Billy Poe, a high-school football star who has become a violent no-hoper; and Bud, a cop with a good heart. The story starts with Isaac setting off for California, only to become embroiled in an accidental murder. The ensuing narrative is a tour of white America's underbelly: a trailer park, a factory and a maximum security prison. But for all these near-clichés, it's anything but predictable.
the observer Sat 23 May 2009
Philipp Meyer's debut novel, set in Buell, Pennsylvania, the heart of America's withering Rust Belt, could easily be a regular tale of life on the other side of the tracks. When the once-booming steel and coal industries collapsed, "half the people went on welfare and the other half went back to hunter-gathering". Buell has become the kind of place where kids cook up meth in their backyards and Wal-Mart is the only company hiring. Meyer's cast is equally familiar: Isaac England, a bright boy who should have gone to college but stayed to look after his disabled father; his sister, Lee, who has fled town for the Ivy League; his best friend, Billy Poe, the high-school football star who has become a violent, beer-swilling no-hoper; Poe's mother, Grace, who can't keep away from good-for-nothing men; and Bud, a cop with a good heart.
The story starts with Isaac setting off (like "Jack Kerouac junior") for California, only for him and Poe to become embroiled in an accidental murder a few miles outside of town - his attempt to break away, to "be a somebody", thwarted at the first turn. The ensuing narrative is a tour of white America's underbelly: a trailer park, a factory, a maximum security prison and the seedy world of corrupt municipal politics. It is, quite explicitly, "the ugly reverse of the American dream", where young men like Isaac and Poe are caught in a spiral of shame, ignored by a country that is "supposed to do better than that for you".
But for all these near-clichés, it's anything but predictable. Meyer wryly acknowledges the literary tradition in which tales like this are often told: "In the end it was rust," thinks Lee, "that was what defined this place. A brilliant observation. She was probably the ten millionth person to think it" - and, in doing so, avoids its pitfalls. Instead, he gives us a powerful insight into the lives of America's dispossessed, without patronising the people he writes about: they are victims of their circumstances, but not blameless caricatures. He has fine-tuned the nuances of their voices, from the intensity of Isaac's rapid-fire thoughts, to the circular, defeated thought pattern of Poe's mother, Grace, and the plot is captivating without ever straying into the realm of folksy page-turner. The political message may be obvious - "We're treading backwards as a nation, probably for the first time in history," Bud's boss tells him - but it's a compelling one none the less.