Tuesday, March 03, 2009

American Rust

American Rust, Philipp Meyer’s debut novel, is a hard story to forget. Beyond a doubt, it is one of the bleakest portrayals of small town America written since the Great Depression and its plot, for good reason, is a reminder of the fiction that came out of that era. Present day Buell, Pennsylvania, a steel town that is slowly rusting away because there is not even enough money left to tear down all the deserted steelworks in the area, is a throwback to 1930s America when high unemployment rates pushed so much of the country into despair.

Isaac English and his older sister, Lee, are two of the brightest students ever to come out of Buell High School. Isaac’s problem is that Lee escaped Buell for Yale, a husband, and a new life far from her depressed hometown, leaving him alone to deal with their invalid father. Isaac, though, has finally had enough and, with the $4000 he stole from their father, he plans to ride the rails to California to start his own new life.

Billy Poe, Isaac’s best friend, decides against going to California but does agree to walk with Isaac as far as where he will be able to hop his first train. A sudden thunderstorm that causes them to seek shelter inside an abandoned mill, though, will change their lives forever because of the three homeless men they meet there. That encounter ends with one of the homeless men dead from a crushed skull and Billy Poe charged with killing him. Isaac, unaware of what is happening to Billy back in Buell, continues on his hapless journey toward a new life, suffering more encounters with bullies and thieves along the way, and growing up more in a few days than he had since leaving high school.

American Rust does not require some spectacular plot to keep the reader turning pages. In fact, the all-but-accidental death of the homeless man, the focal point of the entire novel, could have easily been seen as just another case of self-defense. Rather, the real tragedy of their story is that the boys believe they will be charged with murder if tied to the incident in the old mill and that Billy, when he is arrested, refuses to defend himself for fear of implicating Isaac.

The killing and its cover-up especially have an impact on the people who care most about Billy Poe and Isaac English, and Meyer builds American Rust around alternating first-person chapters that give these voices weight equal to the words of Billy and Isaac themselves. We hear from Lee, Isaac’s guilt-ridden sister who finally realizes what her brother has been through since she abandoned him. We suffer with Grace, Billy Poe’s mother, as she grieves for him and comes to terms with the fact that, despite her willingness to do anything to save him from his fate, there is little she can do to help him. We hold our breaths as the town’s police chief, a man romantically involved with Grace, considers throwing his career away, and more, in order to save the woman he loves.

American Rust is about people and what happens to those people when the future they counted on is snatched from them. It is heavy on atmosphere and memorable characters and it is, I am certain, destined to be one of my favorites of 2009.

Rated at: 5.0


  1. This sounds like something Richard Russo would write. Based on your review, I just ordered this book. Thanks for the recommendation.

  2. I'd heard rumblings about this book, but your review, Sam, is the first serious look I've taken at this book. I definitely need to pick it up. I'm in an old steel and shipping town in NE Ohio (on Lake Erie), and this town is definitely starting to move in that direction. The mill has been closing a small bit at a time, changing hands...the jobs are disappearing and nothing is coming in to replace the lost ones.

    Thanks for the close-up on this one!

  3. I have this is my pile and your review made me move it closer to the top.

  4. Reader, it always makes me nervous when people spend their money based on a review of mine, so let me say that I sincerely hope that you enjoy the book as much as I did.

    I'm pretty confident that you will.

  5. Jen, sounds like this is one with which you will easily identify...sad as it is.

  6. Let me know how you reacted to the story, Lenore. It's been a few days since I finished "American Rust" and I'm still thinking about the characters.