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American Rustby Philipp Meyer
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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