A debut novel is fraught with emotion for both writer and reader. And as I wear my reader’s beret for this blog, that’s what I’m going to discuss. What do you think about when you see ‘first-time novelist’ on the back of the book? I feel a sense of excitement but also concern. On the one hand there is the wondrous possibility that you will discover an entertaining, thought-provoking, intelligent voice (or funny, or scary, or dryly cynical… whatever motors your scooter), a storyteller to spend future nights tucked up in bed with. I suppose this is the same with any writer you are trying for the first time, but when this new writer is also a new writer, there are other possibilities that the watchful reader can experience jitters over. These are the ones I worry about most:
1. Is this going to be a fictionalised account of their life story to date? (Pros: their life may have been interesting. Cons: they may have just grown up in an odd family, been teased at school, travelled, fallen in love and been dumped just like the rest of us.)
2. Are they going to try to write like their favourite author? (Pros: Their favourite author could be your favourite author. Cons: They might think they can write like your favourite author.)
3. Are they going to be experimental? (Pros: a breath of fresh air. Cons: a vast list of misdemeanours (sometimes capital crimes) against plotlines, characterisation, grammar, dialogue, the English language and literary sense in general)
4. Will it be Worthy? (Pros: discover a new, wonderful author who makes you think/laugh/cry etc. Cons: (1) it won’t meet expectations – yours, the gushing reviews on the cover, those of a general English literature kind of standard. (2) The young Y or X’er will think they have something important to tell you and that no one but them has ever contemplated before nor put laser ink to paper about it before.)
[Sigh], it’s a fraught journey to embark on, and possibly one of the reasons I scramble back into the classics at regular intervals, or am content to read my eighth Inspector Montalbano book. Besides, there is so much to read, how many newbies can you let in?
So, Phillip Meyer’s American Rust. How do you approach a debut novel that the New York Times raved about? How do you settle in your mind the act of reading a piece of literature which critics have compared to Faulkner, to Steinbeck, to McCarthy (who regular readers to this blog know is my current favourite author)? Hopeful but cautious is what I went with.
So, the verdict? I think this is a good novel. I think it is an excellent first novel. It’s not perfect. It’s not extraordinary. But I felt for the characters and the situation, I was compelled to keep reading, it was very easy to read which I like to think is the sign of a well-written story. It’s very real. Having heard Meyer a couple of times in the last week (at the Sydney Writers’ Festival and on the radio – he’s incredibly likeable by the way) I know that one of the things he sees as key to his job (and privilege) of being a writer is telling the truth and I think he has achieved this. One of the ‘problems’, of course, with being real and in this case writing about an economically and socially depressed area and the bind the characters have found themselves in, is that the book often left me feeling despondent. But life ain’t always happy or fair is it? And Meyer does leave us with a little hope. Perhaps not as much as I would have liked but then I am a firm supporter of happy endings.
American Rust is definitely worth finding space for in your reading piles, even if, like me, you are often trepidatious about letting a new author in to your reading realm.