Author(s): Philipp Meyer
Set in a beautiful but economically devastated Pennsylvania steel town, American Rust is a novel of the lost American dream and the desperation - as well as the acts of friendship, loyalty and love - that arises from its loss. From local bars to trainyards to prison, it is the story of two young men, bound to the town by family, responsibility, inertia, and the beauty around them, who dream of a future beyond the factories and abandoned homes. Left alone to care for his aging father after his mother commits suicide and his sister escapes to Yale, Isaac English longs for a life beyond his hometown. But when he finally sets out to leave for good, accompanied by his temperamental best friend Billy Poe, they are caught up in a terrible act of violence that changes their lives forever. Evoking John Steinbeck's novels of restless lives during the Great Depression, American Rust takes us into the contemporary American heartland at a moment of profound unrest and uncertainty about the future.
Derek writes: Although there is a death at the beginning of this book and there is a crime investigation it is definitely not a crime novel. Set among the rust belt of Pennsylvania, where in a short period in the late 1970s 150,000 men lost their jobs due to closure of the steel mills, it's really a story about the loss of the American dream. It revolves around two young men, childhood friends, but as different as chalk and cheese. Isaac, no bigger than a child with an IQ practically off the scale, and Billy Poe, fast enough to win a football scholarship and big enough to play pro. Their fate is sealed when Isaac steals $4000 from his aging father and sets out for California where he knows he'll be accepted into an astrophysics program. Poe is trapped by indecision, still living with his separated mother in a trailer, unable to take the single step that will also set him free from the Monongahela River Valley. Poe agrees to walk with Isaac as far as the railway line, but in a harrowing opening scene they encounter three homeless men, a fight breaks out, and although Isaac scampers away Billy Poe has never run from a fight in his life, and one of the men is killed. As Isaac continues his journey to California, Poe is banged up in a brutal State Prison, which he reasons is where he belongs, and so steadfastly refuses to admit guilt or to say anything which might clear his name. Unaware of this Isaac continues on, his imagination and intelligence failing to make up for his lack of street smarts as he rides the trains just as his forebears did in the Great Depression. The characters are perfectly drawn, Isaac's ailing father and his beautiful sister Lee; Poe's mother Grace - worn out from years of just struggling through life and Bud Harris, the over-worked, understaffed local cop who is just trying to hang on until his retirement. It's a magnificent book in so many ways. Underlying the whole story is the hopelessness of all the players. Even Lee, who escaped the valley when Isaac and her mother died, is trapped in a loveless marriage, and despite having married into money, her cage is as tightly locked as the people who still live in the shuttered towns of the valley. Lee's isolation reflects that of the other key characters, Grace alone in her trailer, Bud Harris living alone in his mountain cabin, Poe in prison and Isaac on the road. It's also a novel of hope and redemption, of how people cope with catastrophic change and the lengths we would all go to if we had to save a child. I don't normally agree with anything Patricia Cornwell says, but she thinks Philipp Meyer will win the Pulitzer, and I think she might be right.