Monday, February 15, 2016

American Rust to American Politics and Art for the One Percent

When I heard the praise heaped upon Philipp Meyer’s The Son which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, I was curious about his first published novel, American Rust.  It is a work of merit and promise, and a good read, close to a dystopian piece of fiction, the inverse of the American Dream, depicting the demise of the middle class and the seismic changes to the American landscape.  It is also a Bildungsroman, the protagonist, Isaac English, having to embark on an odyssey to escape the “American rust” of the Pittsburgh valley and its failed steel industry and his father as well, having to endure beatings, starvation and exhaustion during his journey, but ultimately returning home to save his friend Poe, and to find salvation.

This is a well-crafted character driven novel with each carrying a piece of the story, frequently that piece unknown to the others, at least in its entirety, and leaving the reader the omniscient observer.  Meyer skillfully maintains the suspense, making the book a page turner, to me one of the marks of a good writer.

The other characters are intertwined with the 19 year old Isaac English who was expected to go to any top college of his choice as he excelled in high school, as did his older sister, Lee, who went on to Yale on scholarship, and married wealthy right out of school.  Isaac stayed behind in the prison of his environment, to care for his father Henry who is in a wheelchair and also to be with his only friend, Billy Poe, two years older than Isaac, a star football player in high school who was expected to get an athletic scholarship to college, but ended up hanging around the dilapidated mill town mainly out of loyalty to his mother who is divorced, and living in a trailer.  There is the chief of police, Bud Harris, who loves Billy’s mother and has moved mountains to keep Billy on the straight and narrow.  And to further add complexity to the plot, there is the residual love affair between Billy and Isaac’s sister, the now married Lee, who returns to check on her father and finds her brother leaving.

I’ll not go into more details of the plot which brings all of this together but there are acts of sacrifice and love that ultimately set Isaac and Billy free.  Lurking in the background at all times though, are the remnants of the steel towns, the low-paying jobs left behind for those who have stayed and can find them, a future without a real future and violence.  The same feelings were invoked when I read about the empty mill towns of Richard Russo and the trailer parks of Russell Banks.  But Meyer’s writing is his own, and clever as he builds his novel chapter by chapter, from those different viewpoints, converging at the end. There is a little bit of modern day Kerouac here and even Salinger (such as the way Isaac in stream of consciousness refers to himself in the third person as “the kid”).

What came to mind over and over again is this election year.  Here we have two revolutionary yet entirely polarized players, the “democratic-socialist,” Bernie Sanders, and the “alpha male, say-anything-you-want” Donald Trump.  Each in their own way has forged a strong connection with the disenfranchised white middle class, or the young. What used to be a mainstream American Dream now exists mostly for the deliriously wealthy.  The phenomena of today’s Republican and Democratic primaries is the “do-you-hear-the-people-sing” voice of those who have been left holding the bag as we’ve morphed from a manufacturing economy to a techno-service based one. 

In this regard, Philipp Meyer’s American Rust speaks like John Dos Passos’ USA Trilogy, or John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.  The topography of the problem is laid down in similar social commentary. Lee is driving her father for a medical appointment and Meyer observes: Farther along she couldn’t help noticing the old coal chute stretching the length of the hillside, passing high over the road on its steel supports, the sky visible through its rusted floor; the iron suspension bridge crossing the river. It was sealed at both ends, its entire structure similarly penetrated and pocked by rust. Then it seemed there was a rash of abandoned structures, an enormous steel-sided factory painted powder blue, its smokestacks stained with the ubiquitous red-brown streaks, its gate chained shut for how many years, it had never been open in her lifetime. In the end it was rust. That was what defined this place..

Isaac in his travels on foot is approaching a western PA town: From a distance it looked peaceful. Up close it looked abandoned-most of the buildings in complete disrepair, vandalism and neglect. He passed through the downtown, there were a few cars parked, but mostly it was empty buildings, old signs on old storefronts, ancient For Lease signs in most of the windows. The only hints of life came from the coke plant by the river, long corrugated buildings, a tall ventstack burning off wastegas, occasional billows of steam from the coke quenching. A scooploader big enough to pick up a semitrailer was taking coal from a barge and dumping it onto a conveyor toward the main plant. The train tracks were jammed with open railcars full of dusty black coke but other than Isaac, there was not another actual person in sight.

The consequences are destroyed lives. Harris describes it as “The Great Migration” as Steinbeck might have defined it himself: Passing through the town, past the old police station and the new one, he'd seen the Fall, the shuttering of the mills, and the Great Migration that followed. Migration to nowhere-thousands of people moved to Texas, tens of thousands, probably, hoping for jobs on oil rigs, but there weren't many of those jobs to be had. So those people had ended up worse off than they started, broke and jobless in a place they didn't know anyone. The rest had just disappeared. And you would never know it. He'd watched guys go from making thirty dollars an hour to four-fifteen, a big steelworker bagging his groceries, stone-faced, there was no easy way for anyone to deal with it.

Migration jobs like the ones offered to Billy Poe involve constant traveling to dispose of the flotsam of shutting down our manufacturing facilities and its environmental impact: There was an opening at a company that did the plastic seals for landfills. Traveling all over the country. At new landfills they would lay down the plastic liners in preparation for garbage to be dumped there, to prevent leakage into nearby streams and such. At the old landfills they would seal them up, it was like a giant ziplock, a heavy layer of plastic overtop the garbage and then they blew them up with air to test them, just before they dumped the soil on top you could run across the acres of plastic, bouncing, it was like running on the moon…it was fourteen dollars an hour to start. But it was not really running on the moon. It was working with other people's trash. Technicians, they called themselves, but it was not really that. It was laying plastic overtop of trash heaps, it was hanging around city dumps. Your country is supposed to do better….[And then there was] dismantling work, taking apart mills and old factories, they had taken down old steelmills all over the country, locally and nationally. But…there was so much traveling, it was living out of a suitcase the entire year….The work was all in the Midwest now, taking down the auto plants in Michigan and Indiana. And one day even that work would end, and there would be no record, nothing left standing, to show that any-thing had ever been built in America. It was going to cause big problems, he didn't know how but he felt it. You could not have a country, not this big, that didn't make things for itself. There would be ramifications eventually.

Lee’s teacher in high school had come to the town decades before when the steel mills were thriving.  He moved to the Valley to bring socialism to the mills, he'd been a steelworker for ten years, lost his job and become a teacher. Graduated from Cornell and became a steelworker. There were lots of us, he'd told her. Reds working right alongside the good old boys. But there had never been any revolution, not anything close, a hundred and fifty thousand people lost their jobs but they had all gone quietly. It was obvious there were people responsible, there were living breathing men who'd made those decisions to put the entire Valley out of work, they had vacation homes in Aspen, they sent their kids to Yale, their portfolios went up when the mills shut down. But, aside from a few ministers who'd famously snuck into a white-glove church and thrown skunk oil on the wealthy pastor, no one lifted a hand in protest. There was something particularly American about it-blaming yourself for bad luck-that resistance to seeing your life as affected by social forces, a tendency to attribute larger problems to individual behavior. The ugly reverse of the American Dream. In France, she thought, they would have shut down the country. They would have stopped the mills from closing. But of course you couldn't say that in public…

Which brings us to the present, the “ugly reverse of the American Dream…you weren't supposed to get laid off if you were good at your job” and the consequences, a barbell society, lots of people at the one extreme, a select few at the other, and the vanishing middle class in between.  Indeed, there are “ramifications” reflected in the contentious presidential debates, the right moving further to the right and the left moving further to the left, not exactly what our founding fathers envisioned.

And speaking of how the other half of the upper 1% live, this past week featured the annual Palm Beach Jewelry, Art & Antique Show which we like to visit but with a look-but-do-not-touch mind-set.  Actually, it’s with an “unable-to-touch” approach as some of the works of art there are priced at $250k plus although there are some nifty pieces for “only” $10k. It is like an eclectic museum and it appeals to my idiosyncratic taste in “art.”

We attended it on “President’s Day” weekend.  Here is yet another change in American Life. We used to celebrate Washington’s Birthday on February 22, but that fell on unpredictable days of the week and there was Lincoln’s February 12 birthday to consider, so it became a compromised holiday, conveniently on a Monday for the benefit of blockbuster “Presidential” mattress and automobile sales.  Sorry, General Washington.

Nonetheless, at the show I was drawn to Mark Daly’s Broad Street Commute, President’s Day, oil on linen, painted in the classic impressionist style, one I’m particularly fond of and of the subject as well.  Merely a cool $14.5K. 

I’m a sucker for sea scenes, especially of the old classic sailing ships and if I had “another” $168k would be snapping up Montague Dawson’s Blue Pacific, The Titania.

Given the solipsism of today’s world, I was intrigued by Susan P. Cochran sculpture Narcissistic Ant.  Not sure that I have an appropriate place in the house to display it though : - )

Finally, after walking the exhibit, I thought a good cup of coffee might be tasty, but I was told to keep my coffee beans to myself when approaching the polished American Duplex Fresh Ground Coffee Maker on display – unless I had $14k.

Indeed, an interesting display of objects of art, but not to be outdone by the sunset a few days ago taken from our own backyard.  American rust, American dreams, dysfunctional government, all can take a back seat to this….