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American Rust


American Rust Cover



Reading Group Guide

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 arise 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, former high school football star 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. It is a dark but lucid vision, a moving novel about the bleak realities that battle our desire for transcendence and the power of love and friendship to redeem us.

1. In what ways does seeing the novel through the eyes of six different characters change the experience of the book? How would the book be different if seen from only one point of view? Which characters would be more or less likeable if the reader could see them omnisciently? Do you think Meyer was trying to make a broader point by writing this way?

2. Does your opinion of various characters change throughout the book? How and why?

3. Isaac, Poe, Lee, Grace, and Harris are all faced with important decisions that will affect not only their own lives, but also the lives of their loved ones. Whose choice was hardest to make?

4. Which characters behaved in the most unexpected ways?

5. Much of the book touches on the idea of consciously knowing versus knowing subconsciously. In which characters and subplots does this become an important distinction?

6. One of Isaac’s obsessions is the question of what differentiates humans from other animals. What does he ultimately conclude, and why? Do you agree with him?

7. When the book begins, Poe, despite his athleticism, considers himself a coward. Do you agree with his assessment? Has it changed by the time the book ends?

8. Harris, by most conventional measures, is a “good” man at the book’s beginning. Has he changed by the book’s end? Is he still good? Would society agree with you?

9. Lee says in her own words at the beginning of the novel,that she abandoned her family to save herself. Do you agree with this self-assessment? Does your opinion of her change as the story unfolds? What would you do in her shoes?

10. How much responsibility does Grace have for Harris’s actions near the end of the book? Does she have moral responsibility? Are her actions more or less pure than Harris’s? What would you have done in her or Harris’s position? Is Grace still a good person?

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lupoman, March 15, 2009 (view all comments by lupoman)
When I received an advanced copy of this novel, a note from Cindy Spiegel, the publisher, was included, and she compares this author to John Steinbeck.
After reading this page-turner, I was pleasantly surprised that I couldn't put this book down and each character was named as the title of each chapter, alternating until the fast-paced end. The novel is well written, and for a first book of the author, it has Pulitzer Prize written all over it.
The next John Steinbeck? Read this book and you be the judge. 5 stars
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OneMansView, March 12, 2009 (view all comments by OneMansView)
Tough times in Pennsylvania (4.25*s)

This is a distressing story centered on a region, western Pennsylvania, where the near total closing of almost all of area’s huge steel mills in the 1980s and 90s has left behind profound economic devastation and widespread despair in individuals and families, who were solely dependent on the good wages of the steel mills. This book, looking at the situation a few years after the closings, is mostly concerned with the severe impacts that the economic turn of events has had on lives: the unrelenting stresses placed on families and the difficult choices, if they really are that, that have to be made.

Billy Poe, as a jock, and Isaac English, in intelligence quotient, were two of the more talented graduates of their local high school, yet two years later they are still in town and simply drifting. While there is no denying that specific family circumstances have played a role, there is little doubt that the ramifications of economic hard times have permeated their psyches, never really allowing them to consider life-changing possibilities. It’s only fitting that their chance encounter with vagrants in a closed outbuilding of a steel mill, unfortunately resulting in a death, gives the book impetus to scrutinize life in this bleak environment. In addition to the two young men, the author alternates chapters from the perspective of Billy’s mother Grace, Isaac’s sister Lee, and Sheriff Bud Harris. The reader is privy to their thoughts about trying to understand the directions that their lives have taken and their more immediate concerns of Isaac being on the run and Billy’s arrest and incarceration. One of the most compelling story lines is the precarious romantic involvement of Grace and Bud given the complications in their lives.

The book is a bit drawn out – repetitious. The observations of the closed steel mills and the rolling green hills are repeated so often that it becomes a mantra. The author employs a free-form stream of consciousness that can be awkward, but is consistent with the pervasive psychological dissonance. There is no doubt that prospects are bleak for these characters: there are no tidy resolutions available. Yet, there is a certain resoluteness, even toughness, displayed that redeems them despite their fallibilities and failures in the face of very harsh and arbitrary conditions.

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danielcasey, March 9, 2009 (view all comments by danielcasey)
Is it possible to read a novel about the working class and/or working poor that doesn't in some way slide into stale ideologies or crass sentimentality? I do think so. Perhaps, Meyers does as well.
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Product Details

A Novel
Spiegel & Grau
Philipp Meyer
Philipp Meyer
Fayette County (Pa.)
Mystery & Detective - General
Mystery fiction
General Fiction
Publication Date:
Grade Level:
9.48x6.60x1.13 in. 1.46 lbs.

Related Subjects

Fiction and Poetry » Literature » A to Z
Fiction and Poetry » Literature » Sale Books
Fiction and Poetry » Mystery » A to Z

American Rust
0 stars - 0 reviews
$ In Stock
Product details 384 pages Spiegel & Grau - English 9780385527514 Reviews:
"Publishers Weekly Review" by , "In his unrelentingly downbeat debut, Meyer offers up a character-driven near-noir set in Buell, a dying Pennsylvania steel town, where aimless friends Billy Poe and Isaac English are trapped by economic and personal circumstance. Just before their halfhearted escape to California, Isaac accidentally kills a transient who tries to rob Poe. The boys return to the crime scene the next day with plans to cover up the crime, setting the plot in motion. Poe is soon under suspicion, and Isaac, distraught after discovering Poe has been carrying on a relationship with Isaac's sister, Lee, sets off for California alone. Meanwhile, Poe's mother, Grace, mourns her own lost opportunities, broods over her son and pines for her on-again-off-again love, the local sheriff. A fully realized tragic heroine, Grace is the poignant thrust of the novel, embodying enough rural tragedy to nearly atone for the novel's weakness: a sense that some of the plot mechanics are arbitrary. Still, Meyer has a thrilling eye for failed dreams and writes uncommonly tense scenes of violence, and in the character of Grace creates a woeful heroine. Fans of Cormac McCarthy or Dennis Lehane will find in Meyer an author worth watching." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Review" by , "Philipp Meyer's American Rust is written with considerable dramatic intensity and pace. It manages an emotional accuracy, a deep and detailed conviction, in its depiction of character. It also captures a sense of a menacing society, a wider world in the throes of decay and self-destruction."
"Review" by , "[A] grimly powerful hybrid: provocative literary fiction crossed with a propulsive thriller."
"Review" by , "A Pandora's box of debate for book clubs....[S]trongly recommended."
"Review" by , "A novel as splendidly crafted and original as any written in recent decades, American Rust is both darkly disturbing and richly compelling. Philipp Meyer's first novel signals the arrival of a new voice in American letters."
"Review" by , "With its strong narrative engine and understated social insight, American Rust is reminiscent of the best of Robert Stone and Russell Banks. Author Philipp Meyer locates the heart of his working class characters without false sentiment or condescension, and their world is artfully described. An extraordinary, compelling novel from a major talent."
"Review" by , "This is strong, clean stuff. Philipp Meyer deserves to be taken seriously."
"Review" by , "American Rust announces the arrival of a gifted new writer — a writer who understands how place and personality and circumstance can converge to create the perfect storm of tragedy."
"Review" by , "In contemporary fiction Meyer...most resembles Andre Dubus, Dennis Lehane or Richard Price. Bleak and nasty."
"Review" by , "[F]ull of a sorrowful hope that is graced by a profound respect for struggle and the unrelenting courage necessary to carry on."
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