This week, I’m plundering my TBR pile to take a deep dive into life in Pennsylvania as seen through the eyes of two novelists that have made a name for themselves in American Literary Fiction.
I’m in the mood for something meaty, thought-provoking and genre-free. I’ve picked Pennsylvania because it’s a world away from where I live, as alien to me as any Science Fiction setting. I spent a little time working in Philadelphia fifteen years ago. I was inside that privileged ‘stay at the Westin, travel by limo, eat at hosted fine-dining restaurants’ bubble that international consultants travel in, so I barely saw the place but even from behind the tinted glass of the limo it was clear that extreme wealth and extreme poverty lived within blocks of each other on a scale I hadn’t seen in European cities. I never made it out to the industrial heartlands but I’ve often wondered what life is like there. So this is my attempt at literary tourism.
‘American Rust’ by Philipp Meyer (2009)
The context of American Rust fascinates me. The Rust Belt is one of those taken for granted by Americans concepts that are deeply alien to me. If a major manufacturer in Germany or France or Belgium or Switzerland decided to walk away from the cities it built its wealth in, leaving the people with no jobs and the assets rusting away, there would be uproar. Strikes. Protests. Political intervention. Many European countries take the view that large companies are accountable for the social consequences of their decisions. The law does not give them the right simply to close a plant because they could make more money somewhere else. The American Rust Belt seems to be the flip side of the American Dream. I am surprised that, in a country as well-armed as America, executives who take these kinds of decisions avoid being kneecapped in the company car park, the way FIAT executives were in Italy in the 1970s. I’m hoping this novel will take me inside the mindset of the people left behind in these blighted areas.
I’m also curious about Philipp Meyer’s writing. Here’s the first paragraph of American Rust:
Isaac’s mother was dead five years but he hadn’t stopped thinking about her. He lived alone in the house with the old man, twenty small for his age, easily mistaken for a boy. Late morning and he walked quickly through the woods toward town – a small thin figure with a backpack, trying hard to keep out of sight. He’d taken four thousand dollars from the old man’s desk; Stolen, he corrected himself. The nuthouse prisonbreak. Anyone sees you and it’s Silas get the dogs.
If I just read this aloud, it works. There’s immediate intimacy. A sense of being sealed in to a story, of having a character sketched before you in real-time. It’s colloquial and easy on the ear. It’s also hard to look at. The punctuation makes my inner editor want to reach for a red pencil. The complex sentences seem like something jerry-built. Yet they work. I wonder how much of that is deliberate. I wonder whether I’ll get through a whole book of it. Oddly, there’s no audiobook version, at least not in the UK.
Anyway, this book has been in my TBR pile since November 2017 so it’s time to read it or release it.
‘Heat & Light‘ by Jennifer Haigh (2016)
Heat & Light is in my TBR pile because I was so impressed with Jennifer Haigh’s short story, Zenith Man. It was a gentle, focused sliver of a life lived differently, written in language that was low-key, unpretentious but beautiful in an unassuming way.
When I looked her up, I saw that most of her books tackle difficult issues but from a very personal perspective.
Baker Towers (2005) tells of the rise and fall of a western Pennsylvania coal town in the years following World War II. The Condition (2008), traces the dissolution of a proper New England family when their only daughter is diagnosed with Turner’s Syndrome, a chromosomal abnormality that keeps her from going through puberty. Faith (2011) tells the story of a priest in suburban Boston accused of molesting a boy in his parish. Mercy Street (2022) tells the story of a woman working at a Women’s Clinic in Boston that is targeted by anti-abortionists.
I’m keen to see what she does with the impact of a fracking project on a small community.