Phillip Meyer’s 2010 novel American Rust (Spiegel & Grau Trade Paperback) is a haunting reflection of contemporary America. The senselessness of violence is a theme that permeates the plot. Just as I finished it, Loughner went ballistic in Arizona and suddenly this work of fiction offers a mirror into our nation’s mental health. When life means nothing, death means nothing more.
Set in a small factory town in Pennsylvania, the characters come to life and I recognize my neighbors and friends and community in the depressing state of affairs. The deep characters’ problems resonate outside the steel industry woes; these people lived through the de-industrialization of our nation in complicated family situations.
Billy Poe played high school football and excelled at that alone. Isaac English, Poe’s friend, is small and bookish; but like Poe after graduation from high school he simply drifted. Isaac was left to care for his father — disabled from an injury in the factory — after his mother committed suicide and his sister, Lee, escaped to Yale.
Isaac makes a plan for his big escape. He steals $4,000 in cash from his father and hooks up with Billy Poe to escape this hometown of hopelessness. Before they are even out of town they run into a trio of “bums” who challenge them for their shelter against the rain. Isaac runs for it, but Billy Poe can’t walk away from a fight. Before he knows it, Poe has a knife at his throat. Isaac returns when he realizes he’s left Billy behind in danger.
He sees Billy under assault and picks up a rock and hurls it. Much to his own surprise at his own strength under the influence of adrenaline, the bum is dead. The Swede, they called him.
Meyer’s epigraph is written by another old Swede, Soren Kierkegaard:
“If there were not eternal consciousness in a man…if an unfathomable, insatiable emptiness lay hid beneath everythng, what would life be but despair?”
Nihilism, for Soren Kierkegaard, is the levelling effect of society. It’s the suppression of individuality by social forces to the point where the self disappears. Nihilism isn’t the same as anarchy. It’s more the philosophy of nothingness rather than the senseless destruction resulting from holding such a world view.
Nietzsche is perhaps better known than the old Swede for his political writings about nihilism. Nietzsche realized that the impulses toward senseless destruction result from a life without meaning. Nihilism is the belief that there is no point to existence.
Moral nihilism is when no action is judged as inherently right or wrong. Killing, for example, isn’t right or wrong. Existential nihilism is the belief that life has no intrinsic meaning or value. This makes for a heady mix of themes in a small town crime story.
Epistemological nihilism is that pervasive skepticism in our society in which facts and knowledge can simply be denied. I’m not talking about a healthy dose of critical reasoning. No, it’s the widespread belief that you can’t believe anything.
It is not simply Poe, Isaac, and his sister Lee who inhabit this nihilistic world in American Rust. Parents, the police, the bums, the lawyers, and their peers. Grace Poe has an ongoing relationship to the local sherriff who has gotten Billy out of trouble before. Bud Harris hunts down the eyewitness to the bum’s killing and shoots him; intentionally. Even though Bud doesn’t think the life of this bum is worth throwing away the future of Billy Poe and wants to take care of his mother’s problems, Bud is no nihilist. Life does have meaning. Not everyone’s life. But his life does. Or so he contemplates his future in retirement in less than 18 months as a lonely bachelor hermit back in the woods alone with his dog and gun. Intimacy with Billy Poe’s mom meant something to him.
Billy goes to jail and is charged with the Swede’s murder. His life doesn’t mean much to him. But Billy values Isaac’s life. He’d already saved him once by jumping into the freezing water after Isaac tried to drown himself in the same river where his mother had taken her own refuge from the senseless destruction surrounding her. Friendship meant something to Billy Poe. He was about to take the rap for the murder Isaac committed.
The story is gripping and its telling magnificent. The chapters are titled by the voice of the character who narrates. Louise Erdrich is another writer who uses this technique so effectively to convey the depth and complexity to characters. Each voice is distinctive and authentic in a haunting way for its almost confessional tone.
It’s a sad story without a verdict.