American Rust by Philipp Meyer is a contemporary fiction novel set in a dying Pennsylvania steel town, where the largest employer has shut down years before, where few opportunities exist for the town’s youth or the adults who’ve spent their lives slaving away in the steel mills.
Isaac English is a smart but socially awkward young man saddled with the care of his disabled father. Bitter that his sister was able to get out after their mother’s suicide, he finally decides to leave town to make his way to California. Taking his father’s stash of emergency money and throwing some items in a backpack (journals, a jacket) he heads out, asking his one friend Billy Poe to join him in walking the tracks to the outskirts of town where the plan is he’ll jump a train.
Billy Poe is a young man who has used up all his chances. A football star in high school who’s had a couple scrapes with the law, a fight gone wrong, and some missed opportunities.. . now a few years have gone by and here he is, stuck. His glory days are behind him and his future looks bleak. With self doubt holding him back he has stayed behind with his mom in their trailer rather than pursue offers of college scholarships, thinking maybe he’d go away to school in a year or two- well, he realizes now he’s made a big mistake. Nobody wants him anymore and he’s full of regret.
So with no prospects and nothing to lose, Isaac and Billy set off. Before long they encounter a situation with some homeless men on their way out of town that turns violent and changes their lives forever.
Other characters in the book include Billy’s sad and lonely mother, who has had an on again/off again relationship with the chief of police for years; Isaac’s brilliantly stupid sister Lee, a genius and Yale graduate who married into a wealthy family but is still dangerously attracted to Billy Poe; Isaac’s used-up father, a man who favors his daughter and doesn’t realize his deep feelings for his son until it’s almost too late; and the conflicted Chief Harris, a man who means well but whose actions belie his questionable character.
Told from the perspective of all of these characters, this novel does a lot of things very well. Each voice was entirely unique and felt real and raw. Mr. Meyers has created memorable characters that leap off the page, with inner conflicts that are completely relatable. Not only do you want to know what will happen to Billy and Isaac, but you gain a deeper understanding of the complex issues facing towns like the fictional Buell, PA. This economically devastated yet beautiful town was a huge presence in the book. As I was reading, I kept wondering… even if you get out, can you ever escape your past?
American Rust is an excellent debut novel, dark and emotional. It’s about loyalty, friendship, desperation, and loss. Mr. Meyers storytelling is compelling and gritty. There is no happy ending here, but if you’re ok with that, this is one I highly recommend.
Random House has generously offered a copy of American Rust as a giveaway to one of my readers as part of it’s TLC Book Tour! For a chance to win, leave a comment letting me know if you still live in or near your hometown, or if you’ve left it behind. The contest is open until Sunday, February 21, at midnight.
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