I am from Erie, PA. A city failing so hard it hurts to go back. I was born during its destruction (1980s) and saw my father continually laid-off and rehired by the same factory (General Electric). During the periods he did work, my father worked as many hours as possible, removing him from the family. I mainly remember him as the man who slept because he worked long hours. Slowly more and more people were laid-off and never rehired. Amazingly, my father survived the numerous rounds and always returned to the factory. It was not until last year that my father left the factory; he was forced to retire at the age of 57.
Erie is a rustbelt town on Lake Erie. The pollution from factories still kills the fish and makes for beautiful sunsets. Two types of people live there: those who have resigned themselves to staying and those dying to leave. People do not stay for the jobs (there are not many) or the lifestyle (fast food, scary bars, and box stores). They know the situation. They understand the economy sucks, that the town is going down hard, but what are they going to do. It’s a quiet, sad reservation that makes drinking and/or gambling a serious pastime.
I write all this because I am amazed at how well Philipp Meyer’s American Rust captures the feeling of Western Pennsylvania and the people who stay and the guilt of people who leave. The novel centers on an accidental murder, but this one death seems insignificant when compared to what US capitalism has done to these people. The closing of the factory left a shell of a town; the inhabitants know everything changed, but do not know how to react. They stay because it is familiar and how much worse can it get: a local claims, “There just isn’t that far you can fall.” The comfort of failure is all around, so they scrape out a living through any service industry job they can find. Hoping for better seems silly and others have it worse, or so they say to comfort themselves.
What I like about this book is that there is no optimism, well maybe some, but not a lot. Life in this town will never be the same and neither will the people. The sadness is palpable. Young women sit around discussing the losers they ended up with and placing all energy hopelessly hoping that their children will have a better life. Shame-filled fathers knowingly emotionally distant, sons with potential who cannot seem to get out, and mothers whose sons’ failures wrack them with guilt. Those who left feel as if they abandoned their families, while they made a life elsewhere in more hospitable places. Even when they leave, they carry the “backwardness” and sorrow of their town with them.
In the end, most flee, but not without a sacrifice. The escape is not glorious. It is mournful. A person with a broken spirit, burning down their trailer home is not cathartic, but sad desperation.