(Reviewed by Poornima Apte MAR 24, 2009)
The small town of Buell, PA, has slowly bled manufacturing jobs for many years. The once thriving steel industry in the scenic Monongahela valley is now in free fall and an accompanying sense of loss and rootlessness permeates the lives of the town's residents.
In American Rust, debut author, Philip Meyer, weaves a story that revolves largely around two characters who have been best friends since high school: Isaac English, a gifted, scrawny kid and Billy Poe, a jock who won a football scholarship but never left Buell. Despite Buell's limited opportunities, the two have chosen to stay in town for reasons of their own. As the story opens, however, we find that Isaac has chosen to finally leave, stealing $4,000 from his father and deciding to hop on trains all the way to Berkeley, CA, where he can study astrophysics. Poe has come along to bid farewell to his friend. Unfortunately before Isaac can make the ride, the two run into some vagrants in a derelict steel mill and in a matter of minutes, Isaac has killed one of the bums while trying to protect his friend, Poe, from certain harm.
This singular violent incident throws the friends on separate paths. Isaac decides he must now run from the authorities and this time hops on a train managing to make it all the way to another industrial dead zone—Michigan, before he runs out of money and probably, hope. Poe, on the other hand, has had a record with the police and the only reason he has not been in jail more than he probably deserved to, is because the police chief Harris, is having an affair with Poe's mother, Grace. This time, however, even Harris can't do much for Poe. The new DA in town is eager to prove his credentials and smells blood. Poe, a kid known for getting into trouble, is the prime suspect and he gets locked in high security prison.
As the story moves on, Meyer looks at the narrative through the eyes of many associated characters: Isaac's sister Lee, a married Yale grad, arrives in town in her Mercedes and tries to make sense of the situation that unfolds. Then there's detective Harris, a guy who is trying to do his best in a place which has “small-town budgets and big city problems.” After all, “citizens with pensions and health insurance rarely robbed their neighbors, beat their wives, or cooked up methamphetamine in their back sheds,” Harris thinks. His on again, off again girlfriend, Grace, systematically ruins her chances at a better life by sticking around in Buell hoping Poe's father will come back into her life.
While allowing us glimpses into these characters' lives (or perhaps even through these glimpses), Meyer also chronicles the crippling effect of massive job losses in a town like Buell. “You wanted to believe in America, but anyone could tell you that the Germans and Japs made the same amount of steel America did these days, and both those countries were about the size of Pennsylvania. He wasn't sure about that last fact, but he guessed it was true. Pennsylvania was a big state. Not to mention all the expensive cars were made there—overseas—Lexus, Mercedes, the list went on. Happening to the whole country he thought, glory days are over.”
Even if American Rust is a fairly dark book, it is not as depressing as the storyline suggests. At the end, you realize that essential values like friendship, love, hope survive even the worst disasters. A case could be made that the central character in American Rust is a guy who pretty much stays on the sidelines for much of the novel—Henry English, Isaac's dad. The wave of factory closures in the Monongahela region has him moving to Indiana for work until an accident on the manufacturing floor leaves him badly injured. Henry comes home to disability, having to face the rest of his life in a wheelchair. He is probably the most manipulative character in American Rust—his fear of being left alone, both physically and emotionally—takes a huge toll on the family. Just before Lee leaves for Yale, Isaac's mom commits suicide and Isaac is left alone to bear the brunt of his father's care. Henry's needy dependency and the guilt he deliberately builds in Isaac is much of the reason why Isaac doesn't follow in his sister's footsteps and leaves for Yale. “When you got that job in the Carnegie library—two hours each way on the bus—he got sick all of a sudden. Four visits to the doctor in a week. Wanted you home but wouldn't say it. That was his way of telling you. And you gave in. Some part of you was happy to give in. The same part of you that has kept you here waiting two years now,” Isaac thinks about his relationship with his father.
Through the gradual disintegration of one family, American Rust brilliantly narrates the unraveling of the American dream. Meyer wonderfully makes the connection between macro-level economic problems and intimate emotional and social ones. After all, as Meyer writes, “You could not have a country, not this big, that didn't make things for itself. There would be ramifications eventually.” American Rust is a great read. It is very much a book that is for—and a product of—our trying times.
- Amazon readers rating: from 130 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from American Rust at Random House
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
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- Official website for Philipp Meyer
- Austinist interview with Philipp Meyer
- Popcorn Youth interview with Philipp Meyer
- Reading guide for American Rust
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About the Author:
Philipp Meyer grew up in a working class neighborhood in Baltimore, the son of an artist and an electrician turned college science instructor. The neighborhood, Hampden, had been devastated by the collapse of various heavy industries, and crime and unemployment were rampant. Meyer attended city public schools until dropping out at age 16 and getting a GED. He spent the next five years working as a bicycle mechanic and occasionally volunteering at Baltimore’s Shock Trauma Center.
At age 20, he began taking classes at a variety of colleges in Baltimore and decided to become a writer. He also decided to leave his hometown, and at 22, on his third attempt at applying to various Ivy League colleges, he was admitted to Cornell University. He graduated with a degree in English and a mountain of debt and headed for Wall Street to pay off his student loans.
After getting a job with the Swiss investment bank UBS, Meyer did training in London and Zurich and was assigned to an elite group of derivatives traders, jokingly referred to as the “genius desk.” After several years at UBS, he’d paid off most of his student loans and decided to pursue his dream of becoming a writer. When his savings ran out he took jobs as an emergency medical technician and construction worker. He was preparing for a second career as a paramedic when he received a fellowship at the Michener Center for Writers in Austin, TX.
Shortly after moving to Austin, Meyer learned that Hurricane Katrina was about to hit New Orleans. After loading his car with medical supplies he drove all night and arrived in New Orleans in the middle of the hurricane. He spent two days doing emergency medical work for a local police department.
In 2008 he received an MFA from the Michener Center for Writers. He has also received fellowships or residencies from Yaddo, Ucross, Blue Mountain Center, and the Anderson Center for the Arts. He believes that the representation of internal consciousness is one of literature’s most important capabilities; much of his writing is influenced by the work of pioneers such as Joyce, Faulkner, Woolf, and Hemingway, as well as contemporary writers like James Kelman.
He currently splits his time between Texas and upstate New York, where he is an avid outdoorsman, a member of a volunteer fire department, and enjoys tinkering with anything mechanical. His fiancee Alexandra currently works for a law firm and formerly worked for the National Domestic Violence Hotline.