Opening up the newspaper in the morning you read that the police have found the body of a homeless man in an empty shack not far from the train tracks. He appears to have been murdered. There is, at this time, a single suspect, a young man who has a history of assault. It looks as if he doesn’t stand a chance in court, especially not with the new DA. He had it coming, is your first thought. He got off easy the time before because the sheriff helped him out. It’s a tragedy for his mother, but probably no less than he deserves. Reading American Rust, Philipp Meyer’s debut novel, is like reading the truth behind this kind of newspaper story.
Isaac English is smart; he may in fact be brilliant. But at twenty he is still living with his father, unable to get out of the dying steel town like his sister did when she left for Yale. His staying is due to a mixture of stubbornness and filial piety. But after two years of tending to his broken father, Isaac decides to get out of Buell, Fayette County, Pennsylvania. Having stolen $4,000 of his old man’s money he sets off west down the train tracks, headed for Berkley and the education he knows he deserves.
But first, Isaac stops by the trailer where his friend Billy Poe lives. The two are an unlikely pair. The former is frail and bookish, the latter a star football player, who wasted his chances at a college scholarship. Isaac tries to get Poe to come along with him, and his friend apathetically agrees to see Isaac as far as the next town. A rainstorm hits and the two wind up in a shed with three bums, at which point the trouble begins.
A fundamental that must be understood about Buell is its beauty. This aspect of the steel town is repeated continuously throughout the novel. The extraordinary loveliness of the place only belittles the community’s inability to retain the dignity it once possessed. There seems to be no way out.
Meyer uses the lens of his novel to examine the dying industries of America and the lives they take down with them. Poe and Isaac represent one faction of the disintegrating community. They are the misdirected youth, each brilliant and capable in their own ways but neither is given anything to thrive upon. The fathers of Buell toiled at the steel mills and the community prospered. But when those were closed down there was little for them to do and even less for their wives. The towns that once flourished with relative comfort sunk into disrepair in the space of a generation.
Lee, Isaac’s sister, is as much of a concrete character as her younger brother. She made it out, married into a wealthy family even, and her motives are just as complicated and understandable as her brother’s compulsion to stay. Grace, Poe’s mother, has stayed and shedding light on her reasons broadens the scope of the novel, giving the plight of the town’s residents a three-dimensional form.
The aftermath of the shed leaves both Poe and Isaac in an intricate moral predicament. The novel tracks their progress and decline, factoring in the presence of the town’s sheriff, Buddy Harris. I liked and connected with almost all of the characters in American Rust and found Harris particularly appealing. Meyer is careful not to work too hard on a single dimension of his characters and as a result they all materialize as complex people with a thick variety of shortcomings, expectations and disappointment. A human face on the law further strengthened the structure of Meyer’s exceptionally well-developed and multi-dimensioned American novel.