American Rust: A Novel

by Philipp Meyer

Hardcover, 2009

Call number




Spiegel & Grau (2009), Edition: First Edition, 384 pages


Set in a beautiful but economically devastated Pennsylvania steel town, a lush landscape as deceptively promising as the edifices of the abandoned steel mills, "American Rust" is a novel of the lost American dream and the desperation that arises in its absence. 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, former high school football star Billy Poe, they are caught up in a terrible act of violence that changes their lives forever.

Media reviews

Do people still think in terms of the Great American Novel – a work of fiction that exactly captures the contemporary spirit of the union? If so, American Rust has GAN stamped all over it. In racing terms it’s by Of Mice and Men, out of Huckleberry Finn, ridden by Cormac McCarthy, and trained
Show More
by Salinger and Kerouac.
Show Less
4 more
[T]he plot is captivating without ever straying into the realm of folksy page-turner. The political message may be obvious - "We're treading backwards as a nation, probably for the first time in history," Bud's boss tells him - but it's a compelling one none the less.
There are awkward moments in this novel […] but these are fleeting lapses, steamrollered by Mr. Meyer’s instinctive storytelling powers and his ability to create characters who evolve from familiar types into flesh-and-blood human beings. “American Rust” announces the arrival of a gifted
Show More
new writer — a writer who understands how place and personality and circumstance can converge to create the perfect storm of tragedy.
Show Less
Meyer's tone is less polemic than John Steinbeck's, but he's working on the same broad scale, using the struggles of a few desperate people to portray the tragedy of life in a place that offers no employment, no chance for improvement.
This novel is in desperate need of an exceptional editor rather than a myth. Amidst all that rust, there’s a good story, a few good characters, and it’s the first book that I’ve read in a long while that deserves to have American in its title; Meyer’s take on what it means to be an average
Show More
Joe-the-Plumber-American holds promise for his literary future. But a lot of what’s good about American Rust manages to get lost in a bog of unimaginative prose, stereotyped characters and dead-ended subplots.
Show Less

User reviews

LibraryThing member mrstreme
For some reason, the debut novel by Philipp Meyer, American Rust, did not resonate with me. It took me two weeks to complete, which is unusual for my reading pace, and I wanted to abandon it at many times. I stuck with it, but in the end, I wish I had given up at page 50. American Rust had a lot of
Show More
potential, but this dark and dreary tale of hopelessness and lost dreams fell short for me.

American Rust was the story of boyhood friends, Isaac and Billy. Isaac unintentionally killed a transient at the beginning of the story, and the story examined the boys’ inability to leave their dead-end town, the unhappiness of characters who did leave, and how friendships were tested. The author used different narrators throughout the story, which was distracting after awhile. In my humble opinion, a telling from one boy’s perspective would have been more effective.

Additionally, I was disappointed with the depiction of the main female characters, Lee and Grace. Lee was Isaac’s sister, a Yale graduate in love with Billy but married to another man. Grace was Billy’s mom who suffered from arthritis that left her hands crippled. Both women dealt with their despair by having empty sex with no-good men– over and over again, like a sad broken record.

Where American Rust succeeded was the illumination of former steel towns that later “busted,” leaving thousands of workers unemployed and unhappy. I often had Billy Joel’s Allentown in my head when I read this book. The imagery of the dried-up towns juxtaposed against the beautiful Pennsylvania countryside was not lost on me, and I appreciated what Meyer was trying to do with this element of the story.

I encourage readers to check out other reviews on American Rust before making a decision to read it. Many, many readers enjoyed this book, comparing Meyer to John Steinbeck and Jack London. I am particular about my characterization, and if a book does not meet my standards, I don’t enjoy it. This was the case in American Rust.
Show Less
LibraryThing member dmsteyn
A well-written debut novel that I enjoyed despite its stark sensibilities, American Rust has been reviewed often, as it was part of an Early Reviewer batch. Most people gave it something between three and four stars, but I think that it deserves at least four stars simply for Meyer’s stylish way
Show More
of presenting a well-managed plot. I see that many people disliked the dreariness of the story, but I think that is mostly a case of not seeing the wood for the trees. The tale is, admittedly, a depressing one, with small town Pennsylvania serving as the backdrop to a story of accidental murder, and all the consequences that flow therefrom. It is a character-driven novel, however, and one never senses that the plot becomes too restrictive.

I liked the pace of the novel, which is abetted by the often stripped-down narration – many of the action and descriptive passages have a Hemingway-like minimalism to them, although the description is a bit more textured than Papa’s tends to be. The staccato sentences and mixture of first and third person narration can get a bit much, but it is mostly handled well. What I also liked was the way Meyer switches between the different characters, with each having a unique angle on the story, and a distinguishable voice. Not all of them are likeable, but they are all recognisable as individuals. I did like Isaac English, the young man who actually commits the murder, mostly because I could relate to his situation – no, not to murdering someone, even accidentally, but to being a young man of a peculiar stripe: at Isaac’s age, I also felt that I did not really fit into any particular society. I have mellowed out somewhat since then, but I can still connect to that feeling of alienation. But enough about me – Meyer obviously has a strong feeling for character idiosyncrasies, which he puts to good use in representing characters from different generations.

To give you an idea of Meyer’s style, here is Isaac on the murder and his friend, Billy Poe:

Only reason you and Poe are alive, that small choice. Your own body trying to keep you breathing - go in the other door. Hard-wiring. Old as gravity. Look what you did to the Swede: no premeditation, no knife, gun, or club. A found object. A natural part of you, the lower level. Built into every man woman child, you tell yourself you don’t need it but look around you. Your friend over the stranger. Yourself over the friend. Highest stakes and you are still here and the other guy is not.

Grim indeed. Isaac’s interior monologue is beautifully realised – he even has an alter ego he calls ‘the kid’, more worldly-wise than himself, whom he defers to when he lands in tough situations. Of course, it is only a coping mechanism that does not always work. But Isaac has a few amusing conversations with himself / the kid throughout the book, especially when he flees home on a quixotic quest to reach California.

American Rust is obviously informed by contemporary concerns about American exceptionalism. Not being American, I can only speculate as to how accurate description the book gives of present hopes and fears. Perhaps the characters in the book are a tad pessimistic, but their situation in a dying rustbelt town probably does not engender confidence in the nation or themselves. It did remind me of Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, as mentioned on the back page, but only tangentially. This book is a more personal statement about relationships, be they between family, lovers, or friends. Yet it is also concerned with broader issues of decline and possible redemption. It does not shy away from showing the dark side of unbridled capitalism. Now, I am no socialist, but I do sometimes worry that, as Emerson wrote, ‘Things are in the saddle, / And ride mankind’. I remain an irreverent optimist, however, and hope that this is not quite the case. In any case, the ending of the book left me feeling somewhat ambivalent: it is hopeful to a degree, but one cannot help feeling that Meyer himself is anything but hopeful about America and the wider world.

Well, a good, worthwhile book. I look forward to Meyer’s sophomore effort.
Show Less
LibraryThing member DeltaQueen50
American Rust by Philipp Meyer is set in a small Pennsylvania steel town called Buell, where the steel mills have shut down and the jobs have disappeared. Foreclosures, minimum wage and drug use are the facts of life in this economical wasteland. This is a town where the older people feel trapped
Show More
in their lives while the younger ones search for a way out.

Although his characters could be classified as “losers” Meyer writes about them with such straightforward clarity and unsentimental sympathy that the reader is soon caught up in their lives and hoping that they find an escape from this one-way downward spiral that they are on. The main characters are two young men who are very different from each other. Isaac is a brainy yet socially awkward kid while the other, Billy, is a former high school football hero with a hair trigger temper. The young men, now in their twenties, didn’t get away to university like everyone thought they would but Isaac now decides it’s time for him to leave. Billy accompanies him out of town, but unfortunately trouble finds them before they get very far. This trouble escalates to affect both young men and their families through a series of bad choices and bad timing.

This is a story that reached out and grabbed me. Told from multiple perspectives, the author creates a rich layered narrative that shows how circumstances, personalities and timing combined to bring on a tragedy. This compelling plot is set against a landscape of industrial decline, giving American Rust a distinctive and entirely believable atmosphere that made the story totally work for me.
Show Less
LibraryThing member grheault
Sorry, I couldn't get into this book. It came highly recommended by a friend. I am Dennis Lehane fan. I love down to earth characters in stories from tough past prime neighborhoods that remind me of home. I am a recent, sympathetic visitor to the decimated towns south of Pittsburg, and I cannot
Show More
forget the emotional impact of seeing those abandoned factories of steel mill country. Yet, in this book, I couldn't grasp the characters, didn't stick with the story past the first two chapters, skimmed to the end, read the last four chapters, and was done with it. Sorry, sorry, sorry.
Show Less
LibraryThing member OscarWilde87
American Rust tells the story of two young adults, growing up in a small Pennsylvania steel town that has already seen its best years. After the economic decline which sent most of the people living in the fictitious town of Buell into unemployment, life is not the same anymore. As the
Show More
manufacturiung jobs vanish, the middle class just follows along. The only way to get out of the downward spiral is a good education and leaving Buell. The protagonist, Isaac English, is the smartest kid in town and has all the chances to attend an ivy college and leave behind all the misery in his home town. His sister has already taken that chance which makes it harder for Isaac who remains with his father after his mother's death. Still, the dream to finally leave grows stronger in him with every day he stays at home. Isaac's best friend, Billy Poe, lives on the other, even poorer, side of town. His ticket out could have been playing football, but he, too, does not leave Buell because of family ties. He remains with his mother who only wants the best for her kid - a kid that has problems with being aggressive and violent.

This is the setting of American Rust, a novel about the decline of the American Dream. Right in the beginning Isaac and Billy get into trouble with Isaac ending up killing someone unintentionally. The story then unfolds from different points of view that all contribute their share to advance the plot from a first-person perspective. The way the author places all the bits and pieces is remarkable as it gives the reader an insight into the different characters and their feelings and also creates a bleak atmosphere where both main characters are stuck in a rut and are completely helpless. While Billy Poe goes to jail for what Isaac did, Isaac starts out on a roadtrip that leaves him hungry, dirty and more helpless than ever before. Eventually, both of their stories end where they began. Both return to the dilapidated town of Buell they did not leave when they had the chance to and now do not seem to get out of.

Philipp Meyer writes a very intelligent novel which succeeds in creating an authentic atmosphere that makes you wonder at points whether the book is based on a true story. Perfectly crafted characters, narrative style, choice of words, atmosphere and plot are so much in tune that reading the novel makes for an extraordinary read. It is quite simple to give a recommendation: Read this book and enjoy this book.
4.5 stars.
Show Less
LibraryThing member JGoto
The setting of Philipp Meyer’s American Rust is a small, dying town in Pennsylvania. The mills in the town have closed down, leaving behind unemployment and a general feeling of hopelessness. The novel is told primarily from the points of view of five characters: Isaac is a twenty-year old with
Show More
the IQ of a genius. His mother killed herself and his father was crippled in a mill accident. He’s tired of the responsibility of caring for a father that does not particularly like him and plans his escape. Billy Poe is Isaac’s only friend. Unemployed and on parole, Poe lives in a trailer with his mother. His days as a high school football star are over and his future is bleak. Lee, Isaac’s sister, has escaped the town. A graduate of Yale, she has married into a wealthy family and seems to have forsaken Isaac and her dad. Grace, Poe’s mother, is divorced and unhappy. Harris, her former lover, is the town police chief who is close to retirement age and alone. Each of the characters longs for a better life. Isaac is on the verge of leaving when he and Poe become involved in an unintentional murder, which sets in motion a new direction for all of them.

American Rust is filled with taut drama. Meyer has created flawed and extremely believable characters in this novel. They are intricately bound to one another. Their obligations and loyalties to each other are both their saving graces and their downfalls. I became very invested in the characters and found the book hard to put down.
Show Less
LibraryThing member lriley
Thanks to LT and its Early Reviewers program.

Philipp Meyer's American Rust is one of the best first novels I've ever read. The fictional rural town of Buell Pennsylvania (near Pittsburgh) is where most of the action takes place. Set in present time against a comatose industrial landscape--laid off
Show More
and/or disabled steelworkers, suicides and their no hopes children. Two young men-- Poe and Isaac are confronted by three older vagrants in an abandoned mill. Poe is large--a former high school football star who has turned down numerous colleges--Isaac is short and skinny. Issac leaves but several minutes later comes goes back in by a back door and saves Poe's life though in rescuing Poe he kills one of the vagrants. Everything is set in motion from that event. Later on the two will return to the scene of the crime. Poe having left his high school football jacket, Isaac having hid $4000 he's stolen from his disabled wheelchair bound father. The police chief Harris and his sidekick Steven Ho now at the scene will see them coming and their suspicions immediately fall on Poe who has had a number of runins with the police. Harris as well has had an affair with Poe's mother Grace and has used his influence to get Poe out of trouble before.

As it happens Isaac's sister Lee is visiting--recently married--she renews a sexual relationship with Poe as Isaac looks on with a mixture of disapproval, disgust and jealousy. The wheels of justice slowly turning--Isaac decides to take off with the stolen money and heads out on foot with California in mind. In the meanwhile Harris pressured by a new and very politically motivated district attorney and after an affadavit by one of the two surviving vagrants fingering the wrong man arrests Poe but instead of his being put him in the county lockup--the local politcal machine has him transferred to a real men's prison.

As the novel moves along Poe in prison is left to choose between pointing the finger at Isaac or surviving in a prison system in which he will be either a pawn or a victim of other inmates. Issac on the road finds himself in somewhat similar straits--robbed by another hobo who has befriended him, having lost his jacket--cold, filthy and starving he walks into a Wal-mart, takes a jacket, a knife, various other clothes and energy bars into a dressing room, comes out running for the door and though hotly pursued by a number of Wal-mart employees is able to make his escape into some woods nearby.

In the meantime police chief Harris has been renewing his relationship with Poe's mother and Isaac's sister Lee has been taking care of her father and trying to line up a lawyer for both Poe and Isaac. And as it happens in both cases of Isaac and Poe a realization is occuring that they will have to face their demons. Anyway that sets everything up for the finale.

There are a number of writers that Meyer calls to mind. Thematically a modern day Steinbeck. His prose style is Faulkneresque--the chapters in American Rust not unlike Falukner's 'As I lay dying ' headed by the voice that takes up the narration at the point where it's been left. It also has the kind of psychic sometimes violent intensity of a Cormac McCarthy.
For all that everything flows beautiflly--almost effortlessly together. There's almost nothing superfluous her. From start to finish there is almost like an electric vibe. As well it works as a social critique of our time now in America and the decline or subversion of our values, hopes and dreams. It is written with the down and outer always in mind. Ones who's lives have become trainwrecks more often than not through no fault of their own--being the pawns of unseen rich and powerful entities who have absolutely no regard for them and so it is a book written seemingly that is very much of and for its time. And yet still all in all there is some hope left as in this almost lyrical passage (brings Celine to mind) where Isaac is returning home to face the music: 'He continued heading south. The tracks passed through a wide meadow and the night was clear and black and the stars stretched down to the horizon. Billions of them out there, all around us, an ocean of them, you're right in the middle. There's your God--star particles. Come from and go back. Star becomes earth becomes man becomes God. Your mother becomes river becomes ocean. Becomes rain. You can forgive someone who is dead. He had a sense of something draining out of him, down his head and neck and the rest of his body, like stepping out of a skin.'

Beyond everything else Meyer's prose is so extraordinarly good. Almost can't say enough good things about this. If it were me this is Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award territory. Anyway very highly recommended.
Show Less
LibraryThing member TrishNYC
Reading this book was like taking a wonderful but sad journey through the life of people you have just met. The book starts off with Isaac English and Billy Poe, two young men who are a well of lost and wasted opportunities. Isaac has just stolen $4,000 from his father and is leaving town to chase
Show More
a better life for himself. Poe decides to walk him a short distance but intends to return home shortly. Unfortunately, nothing turns out as planned for both boys and a man ends up dead.

Isaac possesses the intellect of a genius and everyone in town expects that he will end up in a great college and excel even higher than his older sister who attended Yale. But his mother dies, his father is crippled by a job related accident and his sister leaves for college. For reasons which seem unfathomable, he chooses to remain at home rather than go to college. Billy was once a star althete with scholarship offers from top universities. But he squanders all these opportunities by choosing to remain in his small town practically doing nothing with his life. He seems to spend the rest if his time unemployed, getting into fights and being a source of worry to his mother. But as different as both boys seem from each other, they form a friendship. And though Billy seems from the aforementioned description to be a bad seed, there is something about this character that is intensely sympathetic. Billy like the rest of the characters in the book all make bad choices and tries to make the best of what the town and its surroundings has dealt them.

The town had once been a giant of the manufacture and sale of steel. But like many of such towns in America's rust belt, the factories had not been properly updated and had become less competitive in the market place. A vast majority of the men in the town had once worked in one of the many steel plants only to have their source of income taken away when most the jobs went overseas. The town is now a shell of its former self and half the population seems to be receipents of section 8, welfare benefits and other forms of government assistance. In addition, there is a good part of the population that is involved in ingesting Meth or cooking it for sale or private use.

The author is amazing at describing the pyhsical decay of the town amidst the natural beauty that surronds. You feel the breakdown of the town and the despair that its inhabitants experience as they try to just make it from day to day. Their pysches are broken and he is able to capture it in a very palpable way. He discusses contemporary American life and its problems without it sounding like he is preaching to you or fulfilling an agenda. His style is slow without being boring and detailed without meandering. I will say that his writing does take a bit of getting used to but I believe that the effort expended is repaid in full. There were parts of it that I felt were randomly thrown in without any real purpose but the substance of the novel makes you forgive this. The story will transport you from your chair to an economically devasted landscape whose inhabitants' dramatic lives will entertain, horrify and sadden you. I would highly recommend this book.
Show Less
LibraryThing member RidgewayGirl
It astonishes me that American Rust is Philipp Meyer's first published novel. It's not so much that the story is gripping or that he's captured the atmosphere of a place; plenty of debut novels have done this, but that the pacing is perfectly timed, the characters fully realized and the book ends
Show More
exactly where it should.

The story begins with Isaac English leaving his rural Pennsylvania home with the intention of riding the rails to California. He stops by to say good-bye to his best friend, Poe, a high school baseball star who never left and who lives in a trailer with his mother. They walk awhile together, and when they meet some other men when they take shelter in an abandoned building, violence ensues. American Rust deals with the aftermath of that crime and it's impact on the families involved. Mostly though, it's about a time and a place. Isaac and Poe live in a community that had made its living off of steel manufacturing, and with the mills closed, the towns in the county are sinking into poverty.

My father read American Rust, and said that it perfectly summed up the place he grew up. Given the amount of attention being paid to places like this one, this is as timely today as it was when it was written almost a decade ago.
Show Less
LibraryThing member gwalklin
Comparisons to McCarthy are unjustified; comparisons to Faulkner are too; Meyer seems strike out into what is different enough to be considered unique (bending the definition of unique a bit, if I may), but something that does not even seem a logical step beyond those two greats. Meh is the most
Show More
precise word I could use about this novel and my feelings toward it on an overall level. Meh. The "staccato" prose (as another reviewer described it, fairly aptly) isn't so much distracting as it is uninteresting. The intentional comma splices, apparent mostly in the Poe sections, are at worst distracting for grammarians and just plain odd for normal readers. The book too frequently dips into cliche, and that's only said because at other times there are some quite nice sentences--I feel as if Meyer knows better, and the book just wasn't stripped of its own rust for whatever reason.

Story is rather better than the style. The pacing was, overall, good, picking up toward the end (but finishing with a rather abrupt ending), and the development of the decay and death theme was, if sometimes too obvious, carefully constructed. The frequent use of stream-of-consciousness was just plain anachronistic, it seemed to me--but what do I know?--slowing down the pace of the book. Apparently too, everyone's thought patterns seemed pretty much the same--expressed in the same style, the same little perspectives on things, high schoolers with the wisdom of 35 years seemingly in them.

I don't mean to complain too much at a honest effort by a gifted writer. This book is promising. It just could have used more polishing and less stream-of-consciousness, more tightening of plot and less comma splices, more winding sentences and less cliches. Thus, meh.
Show Less
LibraryThing member AlisonY
This was, quite simply, a damn good read. The pace was set right from the start, and had me turning the pages anxiously right until the last.

It's hard to say much about this book without spoiling the plot. With a backdrop of the antithesis of the American Dream, this novel has the pace of a
Show More
thriller but the heart of something much deeper. An incredibly well developed cast of characters take their turn to narrate following a life-changing event that is pulling them all down but ultimately setting them all the ultimate test of love and loyalty.

This will be one of my favourites of the year.

4.5 stars - pure reading pleasure.
Show Less
LibraryThing member LiteraryFeline
It's quite an endorsement when several book bloggers include a book on their top ten list of the year. American Rust was one such book in 2009. My interest in the book began before that, but, admittedly, became heightened even more as a result. Not everyone has been enamored by the book, however,
Show More
which isn't all that unusual. I don't think I've ever come across a book that everyone liked.

Isaac English wants only to leave his hometown. After the death of his mother and his sister's escape to college, he is left to care for his disabled father. He is extremely intelligent and could have had his pick of colleges to attend, only the obligation of taking care of his father had set in--that and his strong desire to please his distant father. Billy Poe, Isaac's unlikely best friend, is a former high school football star. Poe has a penchant for finding trouble and a temper to boot. He never backs down from a fight.

Isaac is finally striking out on his own and his friend agrees to accompany him to the outskirts of town. The weather forces them to seek shelter, and it is there where their lives, and those around them, are irrevocably changed through an act of violence, a death. One will leave town and one will face trial for murder, all the while not knowing the other's fate. Their families will look inward and blame themselves.

My father grew up in Pennsylvania. Not in a steel town, but a small town nonetheless. It has seen many ups and downs over the years. Businesses have come and gone, people too. It is not thriving as it once was. Work is harder to find. My grandmother still lives there, but her children and their children have moved on. It's a beautiful place, full of trees, rolling hills, and wild life that a city gal like me can only dream of. While my grandmother's town is not as bad off as the Valley described in Meyer's novel, I still couldn't help but think of it as I read.

The beauty of American Rust is twofold. It is in the setting, in the landscape. Philipp Meyer's descriptions of a financially devastated and eroding community in Pennsylvania paints a very real and vivid picture of our times. Many of the residents in the community are hanging on by a thread. The steel mills that had once made the area thrive are now in ruins and the community around it has long been suffering as a result. The author holds nothing back in describing the poverty and conditions of the Valley, the hardships of sleeping on the streets, nor of the violent and tenuous conditions inside the prison system. Given the state of many American cities today, the economic hardships facing communities, the novel seems all the more fitting in this day and age.

Then there are the characters. The novel follows several characters throughout the novel, allowing the reader a close look at the thought processes and feelings of each of them. There is Isaac and Poe, the two young men whose story sets the stage for the novel; Grace, Poe's mother, who is lost and struggling to find her way; Bud Harris, the sheriff, a man who has always looked out for Poe, even when he shouldn't, all for the sake of Grace; Lee, Isaac's sister who is ever practical but has emotional baggage of her own; and Henry English, Isaac and Lee's dad, who is afraid of being alone. This format drew out the isolation each character felt and made their desperation stand out all the more. Their pain and guilt and feelings of helplessness were all very real, their resilience astounding. In getting this across, the author succeeded. Yet I felt somehow distant from the characters. I cared about them, sure. Wanted to know how the events in the novel would play out, and hoped for the best, but, still, something was missing. Something I can't quite put my finger on.

The story itself is complex. The situations the characters find themselves in and the choices they make are wrapped in moral ambiguity. These choices have consequences and the reader can clearly see the ripple effect of such decisions, including those made long past and the choices made near the end. Life is not black and white. The choices we make and their consequences are not isolated to only that moment. American Rust is a reminder of that.

American Rust is a strong debut for author Philipp Meyer. I liked the author's writing style and the way he framed the story. My overall emotion while reading the novel was one of hopelessness and sadness. There were times when I grew frustrated with the characters, willing them to make wiser choices, yet knowing they wouldn't because of who they are. While the novel does hold out some hope, however, small, it is a dark novel and will likely not appeal to everyone. It is well worth reading, however, if you are willing to take a chance on it.

Source: Book provided by publisher for review.
Show Less
LibraryThing member lauralkeet
Philipp Meyer's debut novel, American Rust, landed on my TBR pile early in 2010, not long after its paperback release. Four years later I've finally read it, and wonder why on earth I waited so long.

Set in an economically depressed steel town in Western Pennsylvania, this is a story of friendship
Show More
and loyalty, but also of the desperation that comes from experiencing life crashing down all around you. Isaac English and Billy Poe graduated from the local high school and, for various reasons, stayed in their hometown rather than going to college. Isaac's older sister Lee went off to Yale and is now married and financially secure; Isaac cares for their invalid father. Poe mostly gets into trouble and worries his mother sick. When Isaac decides to strike out on his own and head to California, he convinces Poe to come along. But before they can even hop a freight train, they get caught up in a violent conflict. A few days later, Isaac skips town. Poe becomes a suspect and takes full responsibility rather than betray his friend. Isaac's sister arrives to care for their father, and rekindles an old romance with Poe. Chief of police Bud Harris has to lead the investigation, even as he's wrestling with romantic feelings for Poe's mother and a history of protecting Poe from the arm of the law.

The story is told through alternating points of view, and Meyer effectively weaves these threads together both to build dramatic tension and show the economic and psychological impact from the collapse of the American steel industry. The novel's last chapters describe "endings" for each character's storyline in a way that resolves some conflicts while leaving the future uncertain. A lot like life, really. I read the last 100 pages of this book in one sitting and the characters are still inhabiting my thoughts a day later.
Show Less
LibraryThing member pdebolt
After finishing American Rust, I felt the same way I did after I'd read Grapes of Wrath. The rust in the title is applicable to the decaying mining town in western Pennsylvania and to the essential spirit of those who live there.

It is an astounding debut novel because it fully captures the
Show More
motivations and broken dreams of the main characters by devoting alternating chapters to each one while being told in the third person. The plot is bleak, depressing and violent as it alternates from life in the mining town to incarceration to a young man trying to run away from his memories.

The aspect of this novel that saves it from utter hopelessness is the strength of the friendship between Issac and Poe. There is an honor in their unstated commitment to each other that transcends the boundaries of their lives.
Show Less
LibraryThing member hammockqueen
Good .. Very good writing about Pe and Isaac and their friendship, their secrets, their keeping of secrets. Let me into the world of the working poor, places without jobs, life without goals. Yet they both gave up on college, which was a possibility for them. I asked to review this book, yet it
Show More
didn't grab my heart. I think it is only my mood and not the writers' fault in any way.
Show Less
LibraryThing member Kristelh
Story of decline in the American Steel Mill in Pennsylvannia and the the families still hanging on. It is a family story and a story of friendship and a story of love. This was Philipp Meyer's debut novel published in 2009. I found the story entertaining though brutal with violence and excessive
Show More
sexual details I didn't need to enjoy the story. There is some foreshadowing so it is possible to guess the ending though I didn't fully. One reviewer called it a perfect storm of tradgedy. The characters are well crafted but I also felt that the choices made didn't make a lot of sense because, well just because. I don't want to give anything away. It was good, readable, it was called a best novel of 2009 and making some lists like Newsweek and Times, but it really never won any awards and other than being included on the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, it really has no other claim to fame.
Rating 3.43
Show Less
LibraryThing member msf59
[American Rust] is a terrific title but a "Downward Spiral" would have also been fitting. This was my second ER ARC and it did not disappoint. The setting of the novel is a depressed town in the beautiful hills of Pennsylvania.The mills have all shut down killing the local economy.The story follows
Show More
a pair of early twenty-somethings, a jock & a brain,struggling to find themselves in difficult times. The young men are then entangled in a murder, which sends everything hurtling into darkness. I felt the book could have used a little editing but overall it was a solid read.
Show Less
LibraryThing member RoseCityReader
Philipp Meyer deserves praise for his debut novel, American Rust. The writing is excellent – evocative of Dreiser, Farrell, and other masters of American realism to whom he has been compared.

Also, Meyer accomplishes at least two of his goals. For one, he captures the blighted spirit of the
Show More
depressed rust belt town of Buell and its desolate citizenry. Isaac English is a 20-year-old genius who gave up college plans to care for his wheelchair-bound father, crippled in a steel mill explosion shortly before Isaac’s mother killed herself. A violent altercation with three homeless men pulls Isaac, his best friend Billy Poe, and their families into the grinding gears of desperate circumstances.

For another, he creates definite voices for each of the six main characters who present the story from their own points of view. Dividing narrative duty among multiple characters is tricky. So often, especially with a new author, the voices become muddied and the personalities intermingled. Meyer’s characters maintain their individuality throughout.

But there are two fundamental flaws in American Rust. First, Meyer only partially succeeds in keeping the story in the fascinating gray area of moral ambiguity. He gets credit for tackling the big question of when a homicide might be morally justified. There are only a few ways to handle this theme:

* There is the traditional Crime and Punishment method found in Dostoevsky’s classic – and in American classics like Native Son and An American Tragedy – where a crime is certainly committed and justice, while not speedy in any of those examples, is certain.

* Then there is the justifiable homicide – self defense or rescue – that wraps up so many mysteries and adventure novels, but is not particularly interesting for launching a story.

* And, finally, there is the most interesting method, which is to make the killing morally ambiguous. Was it justified? Was it an accident? Or was it a crime? For example, Annie Proulx sticks to this fertile middle ground in her fascinating first novel, Postcards.

Meyer’s problem lies in reaching and then staying in this middle ground of moral ambiguity. The “crime” as committed appears patently justifiable. Meyer pulls his punches when it comes to making his two young heroes possibly bad people, so it is not the killing itself that is morally questionable. Instead, it is the boys’ subsequent cover up and other poor decisions that get them into a legal bind and moral morass. This extra step in reaching the moral gray area distracts from the story.

But it is the ending that is jarringly disappointing. After struggling to drag the story into the moral middle ground, Meyer pulls it way over the line into cold-blooded criminal territory for the finale. This “crime pays” (at least in the short run) ending feels like a cop out after watching the characters grappling with moral conundrums for most of the book.

Which leads to the second major problem, which is that all six of the main characters are martyrs. Each and every one of these people is willing to give up education, careers, and personal happiness; stay in an unhappy marriage, leave a happy marriage, or forgo marriage altogether; risk injury or death; injure others; and even kill others or themselves – all for their son or brother or father or lover. None are motivated by anything but the desire to sacrifice themselves for a loved one. Self interest, or even self preservation, does not come into play. Moral codes and legal systems do not affect decisions. While each character speaks with an individual voice, they are all motivated by the same, one-dimensional force. But while one martyr might be sympathetic, an entire cast of martyrs is tedious.

Because of these cracks in its foundation, American Rust is not the next Great American Novel. But Meyer is definitely an up-and-comer.

Also posted on Rose City Reader.
Show Less
LibraryThing member SqueakyChu
The story opens in the “rust” of Buell, a formerly thriving Pennsylvania steel industry town. Hard times have taken over in the families of two friends, Isaac English and Billy Poe. Isaac, a very bright young man, decides to sneak away from home, stealing his father’s money, with the idea of
Show More
going to college in California. In trying to talk Billy Poe into going with him, a most unfortunate incident disrupts the lives of these two young men.

This book was hard going for me. In each chapter, a different character narrates his particular story. Somehow I felt as if I were hearing the same story over and over again. Perhaps I was. These characters would simply not stop talking (or thinking aloud). The ruminations grew so tedious, that I tossed this book aside thinking not to finish it. I then decided to pick it up again to give this review a fair shake. Even with the second chance I gave this book and with all the talk its characters do, I still could not figure out why some of the main characters were driven to do what they did, even by the book’s end. So frustrating!

As you already see, this is a book that did not please me. It’s not that I don’t like down-and-out characters. They can be very interesting. These characters were simply not that at all. I totally disliked all of them. Okay, perhaps police chief Buddy Harris was not all that bad, but I still found his dog Fur the most likeable character in the book. By the way, Fur’s role was particularly minor.

What continued to bother me throughout the entire story was the constant theme of how intelligent some of the characters were. Well, if they had been so intelligent, how did they always end up making such ridiculous choices of how to conduct their lives? They were so annoying!

You know what was good about this book? It was the description of the decay following the economy’s fall in that area of Pennsylvania. That setting was perhaps a precursor to what is happening in our current economy on a much grander scale. Maybe it was that environment that made me dislike the characters so much, but I doubt it. Thinking about it, the setting had the characters beat by a mile.
Show Less
LibraryThing member zibilee
It looks like I will probably be the lone dissenter on this book. I got through the first hundred pages before I deemed this book pretty much unreadable. I found the writing to be simplistic and was very much bothered by the experimental stream of consciousness style. The lack of correct
Show More
punctuation irked me as well. When a person asks a question without a question mark being involved somehow, it niggles. In addition, the author seemed to frequently omit the subject in many of the sentences, rendering them grammatically incomplete. I also thought that the characters were not likable, and that the women portrayed in this book were unrealistic. Their sexual motivations didn't seem authentic or believable to me at all. If my unemployed husband came home drunk after a day of fishing, and told me he had given all his money to his buddy, my first reaction would not be to have sex with him. In addition, I thought that the plot was slow moving and uninteresting. The subject matter was very depressing to me as well. I am sorry to say that I am just not the right audience for this book.
Show Less
LibraryThing member presto
The story centres on two unlikely twenty year old friends, Billy Poe, a hulking one ex-schoolboy football player, and Isaac English, a slight boyish genius who is looking to escape the dwindling small town in which he grew up. But on the day of his planned departure a dramatic event alters not just
Show More
Isaac's plans, but plunges Billy into a most testing situation.

Along with Billy and Isaac, playing a big part in the story are Grace, Billy's mother, Harris, the police chief who is in a sort of relationship with Grace, and Isaac's father and sister.

It is an involving story, with appealing but by no means perfect characters. But one of the aspects that makes it especially interesting is at the same time in danger of making it verge on the tiresome. The story is told by turn from the viewpoint of the various individuals, and although always in the third person, we see into the mind of each of the characters, and this is done very convincingly, so convincingly that it capture the way one's mind works on a problem or worry, by going over it again and again, looking at it from different angles. While this is very real, for we all probably have done this in our own minds at some time, it can become a little wearisome in print, and one becomes impatient for the story to advance.

But that aside, it is a fascinating story about relationships, not just of the loyalty of the two boys, but of all the characters involved, and what they will do for those who really matter to them.
Show Less
LibraryThing member laphroaig
Trying a little too hard to be the definitive American novel, American Rust is, nonetheless, a story with an interesting character dynamic set in its definitive location - the run down and dying towns that used to be home to American heavy industry.

The two central characters look to escape their
Show More
life which is as run-down and shabby as the town they are seeking to escape. Unfortunately their own futures look as doomed as their home town's after a run-in with vagrants leads to death, lies and strained loyalties. The story follows a key set of inter-related characters: Poe, the fading high-school star; Isaac, his brilliant but awkward friend; his equally brilliant but morally ambiguous sister; Poe's fretful mother; Isaac's hard-hearted, regretful father and Harris, the police chief who watches events develop with a gloomy regret.

American Rust has an interesting set of characters with complicated dynamics, and they are enough to carry the story for extended periods through its grim and pessimistic view of a America struggling to maintain greatness. Unfortunately its plot falters, unsure of direction, as uncertain and lost as its main character and its rusting town. An interesting novel which ultimately tries too hard to be something bigger and in the process loses track of the basics.
Show Less
LibraryThing member oldblack
I enjoyed reading this book...mostly. That's quite a compliment from someone who never reads the 'crime' genre. I am also self-obsessed enough that I don't usually read any book where I can't imagine that I could realistically be one of the characters.

I suppose that's partly why this book is good:
Show More
that the characters do seem like ordinary people who happen to have fallen into extra-ordinary situations. Thus I could feel that I could easily have (and still could) ended up as one of these characters, though some quirk of fate. "There, but for the grace of god, go I", is a feeling a had a lot as I read this novel.

Where I failed to relate to the story was in the fact that most of the main characters turned out to be highly virtuous in their own way. They stuck by their principles despite the personal pain and suffering. That's not me and it's not my experience of most other people. Even the only clear wrong doer, the Police Chief, did wrong for what might been considered the 'right' reasons.

Because this book was a LibraryThing Early Reviewers Giveaway, there's lots of reviews by Americans. They'll have a lot to say about the representation of the decaying American industrial landscape and society. That's one crucial aspect of the book and I've said nothing about it...I suggest you go on and read a proper review.
Show Less
LibraryThing member CBJames
American Rust by Philipp Meyer could almost be considered a piece of historical fiction. The setting is the present, but it's also a Pennsylvania steel town, long after the mill has closed. The problems faced by towns like Buell are still current, but there's a feeling that the rest of America has
Show More
moved on, both in this reader and in the book itself. The problems of former factory towns just seem so last administration. Even the characters in the novel have the sense that they should have moved on. Why are they still hanging around?

One character, Isaac English, is not hanging around anymore, not if he can help it. Isaac has stolen 4,000 dollars from his father who was forced into retirement after an injury and whom Isaac stayed home to care for instead of going away to college like his older sister did. Isaac intends to go to Berkeley to enroll in the University of California. His best friend from high school, Billy Poe is along for the ride. Billy has not done well since he turned down the football scholarship he was offered several years before. The only reason he is not in jail when the novel opens is that the local police chief and Billy's mother Grace are sometime lovers. Once, Grace intended to leave Buell, but Billy's father made that impossible. Since he's left her, she finds her growing attraction to Police Chief Harris is doing the same thing. Harris is the only one among the characters who seems genuinely happy to live in Buell, though even he longs for better times for the town and for himself.

Events spin out of control early in the novel when Isaac and Billy run into trouble with a group of homeless men. When one man accosts Billy, Isaac throws a large ball bearing at him, striking the man in the head and killing him. The two young men run from the scene, leaving behind two witnesses and Billy's high school Varsity jacket. Chief Harris finds the jacket and hides it to protect the son of the woman he loves, but he cannot keep Billy out of jail once the state police become involved in the investigation. Billy will not name Isaac as the one who killed the drifter, intending to protect his friend so that someone he cares about can finally make it out of Buell.

American Rust is a character study that is also a crime thriller. Mr. Meyer shifts the book's perspective from character to character creating full portraits of each while using this device to build narrative tension. Though American Rust is a portrait of the aftermath of the death of a way of life, it's also something of a page turner. But just something. Whether or not the state police will catch Isaac, or discover how deeply Chief Harris has tried to cover-up the crime is not the primary concern of American Rust. Mr. Meyer is much more interested in character study. His interest is in how each character reacts to the situation, how each tries to reconcile their desire to escape Buell with the knowledge that they must leave others behind to do it.

Mr. Meyer's main strength as a writer is his ability to makes his characters real, flawed and fully developed. This also means he cannot make them entirely sympathetic. Whether or not individual readers find them sympathetic enough will influence their reaction to what the characters do. Everyone makes choices in life, and everyone makes bad choices at least now and then, but the characters in American Rust habitually make them. So much so that I began to lose sympathy for them. American Rust has been favorably and fairly compared to John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men. The two novels share so many plot, narrative and thematic elements that they are brothers under the skin. But the reader never loses sympathy for George and Lennie in Of Mice and Men. Mr. Steinbeck's novel is making a point about American society so his characters must remain sympathetic. Although Mr Meyer's book is set in similar circumstances, he is not acting as a social critic. By the end of American Rust, by the middle of it for that matter, it's difficult to blame anyone but the characters in the book for the sorry conditions of their lives.

American Rust has won an impressive array of awards and "Best of ..." mentions and there's already a movie in the works. Phillip Meyer may be an author worth keeping an eye on; this is his first novel. Kristin has an excellent interview with him over at Book Club Classics. Honestly, I would not want to have my first novel compared to John Steinbeck; that's an awfully high standard to live up to. I'm not yet convinced that Mr. Meyer has done it, but the times certainly seem ripe for another John Steinbeck to come along.
Show Less
LibraryThing member ozzieslim
I started reading this book the first time a few years ago when my life started spinning into a chaotic new direction. This book ended up being shelved with an "I'll get back to it" designation as I didn't think my frame of mind at the time could handle further depressing stories or circumstances.
Show More
I think that was the right move to give the book its fair due. Now, in a much more balanced and relaxed place, I could appreciate the bleak ambiance and the darkness.

Many of the reviews talk about this story being inspirational and in the great spirit of American literature comparing it to the likes of Twain and Steinbeck. No - it's nothing like those authors and I don't believe this book will fall into the pantheon of great American stories.It is however, an aptly described portrait of the Rust Belt of America. In this case, the steel towns around Pittsburgh that were closed, in some cases dismantled and in others left to decay reminding displaced workers of more prosperous times.

This is a very bleak story so it's wise to be in a positive state of mind or else you might easily be sucked into the darkness and despair of the story - especially in these long, dark Seattle winter days.

The story is told through the eyes of six or seven different characters. Each one is at a different place in their life experientially and developmentally and this informs the choices each make. The back story which launches this book is an accidental murder, committed in self defense. From that moment, the story unfolds as characters make choices based on their own self-preservation, made in the name of family, romantic love and friendship.

The character of Isaac is a main character but of all the viewpoints expressed, his was the most existential and given the circumstances he was in,made the least sense in some ways. I felt he was least developed and to nitpick the reality factor, his situation would have been more akin to Poe's, one of survival. Most of his inner dialogue is navel gazing and inconsistent with his circumstance (survival) and experience. What's more, this character is 18 and while he has definitely had some defining experiences, his character seemed to have too many inconsistencies.

The characters of Poe, Harris and Grace were, to my reading, the most fully drawn. The development of these characters represent what really great prose fiction can do in making a story great. There is a simplicity combined with clarity in the writing and each of the characters voices are very true to the personalities, life experiences and development within the story.

Because of the uneven development, I wondered whether these three were written later while Isaac, Lee and their father were written first. There are glimpses and potentials in the other three but nowhere near the formers in style, complexity and completeness.

If I had to summarize simply what was going on, I would have to quote "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation." This novel is about that quiet desperation and the choices, in some instances a choice that will be the lesser of two difficult ones, and how those impact each person and the people around them. The back drop is an economically depressed former steel town full of people whose dreams have been shattered, many in despair, some accepting their fate and others fighting to stay energized and alive.
Show Less





0385527519 / 9780385527514
Page: 0.7372 seconds