A review of Benjamin Drevlow’s The Book of Rusty
by James P. Austin
This seemingly straightforward question belies the complex meditation on unresolved grief, dead-end contexts, and toxic masculinity that animates Benjamin Drevlow’s novel, The Book of Rusty. The question, as asked, begs an answer: yes or no. As a matter of plotting, the question seems simple enough to resolve. Yet Drevlow brings us to the crisis moment in his protagonist’s life as his omniscient narrator engages us in a Trafalmadorian-style time loop of Rusty’s life and times, never quite revealing (until late) if we are reading a ghostly fantasy or the fantastic tale of a man who dodged his own sinking fate. And if he has dodged his own fate, what awaits?
Like Donald Ray Pollack’s Knockemstiff, there is a sense in The Book of Rusty that being abandoned at the end of one’s prospects is a generational fact, that the opportunities to change the fortunes of one’s self, one’s people, and/or one’s community departed long ago, and that Rusty is abandoned in an “opportunity desert” where one marks time and sinks more deeply into the muck and mire of a rural America past its prime. An American dilemma for our times. Drevlow draws upon this Midwestern gothic, teasing us with all the determinism we’ve come to expect from the genre while never committing to an outcome that often seems predetermined in Pollack’s fiction. Indeed, Drevlow plays his cards close to his vest in this regard, for while Rusty’s situation throughout the novel is dire, the novel’s resolution does not reveal quite how dire readers should regard Rusty’s circumstances going forward.
The narration knifes through Rusty’s life, subverting chronological plotting and replacing it with a story which has a point of emanation–Rusty on a bridge, contemplating suicide on his 33rd birthday–therefore resisting both a straightforward telling and a predictable conclusion. Like a heavy bruise, the grief and trauma that brings Rusty to that bridge may change form, but they run deep. One may try to laugh about it, vis a vis Frederick Exley’s narrator in A Fan’s Notes or Joaquin Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck in Joker. But for Rusty, as it is with Exley and Fleck, the joke was always up: the bombast is a covering for unresolved anger, grief, and the kind of unrelenting mental grind that wears one smooth and pliant to suggestions of madness, depression, death. What Rusty seeks, what they all seek, is a kindness in short supply. Whether Rusty finds such deliverance where others do not is a key concern of the novel.
These stakes, this bombast, are delivered via a meta-omniscient narrator who shuffles the order of the story and therefore eschews chronological plotting. One imagines a vaudevillian stage presence seeming to interrupt a performance–irreverent, excitable, hands full of story cards he keeps reshuffling as the tale unfolds. Yet the presence of this narrator is not disruptive but becomes a key character animating the novel: the shuffling is not random, for the plot returns to Rusty’s contemplation of suicide, the centrifugal force around which the rest of the story emanates. The narrator commands the order of the story and therefore is crucial to the plotting Drevlow has devised. As we visit the parts of Rusty’s life, we wait to discover what kind of story Drevlow wishes to tell us: of a forgotten, frustrated man in a place best avoided, or one which offers a glimmer of light on the horizon and the gritty, hopeful sense that what lies ahead is worth keeping one’s feet planted on the ground.
James P. Austin
James P. Austin is a professor in the Department of English at Central Connecticut State University. He has published fiction in Mid-American Review, Moon City Review, and Chariton Review, and has another short story forthcoming in BULL.