Synopses & Reviews
Set in a beautiful but economically devastated Pennsylvania steel town, a lush landscape as deceptively promising as the edifices of the abandoned steel mills that once provided the livelihood of generations, American Rust
is a novel of the lost American dream and the desperation that arises from its loss. From local bars to train yards 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, abandoned homes, and polluted river.
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.
"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.)
"[A] grimly powerful hybrid: provocative literary fiction crossed with a propulsive thriller." Kirkus Reviews
"A Pandora's box of debate for book clubs....[S]trongly recommended." Library Journal
"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." Patricia Cornwell, author of Scarpetta
"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." George Pelecanos, author of The Turnaround
"This is strong, clean stuff. Philipp Meyer deserves to be taken seriously." Pete Dexter, author of Paper Trails
"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." Michiko Kakutani, New York Times
"In contemporary fiction Meyer...most resembles Andre Dubus, Dennis Lehane or Richard Price. Bleak and nasty." Dallas Morning News
"[F]ull of a sorrowful hope that is graced by a profound respect for struggle and the unrelenting courage necessary to carry on." Kansas City Star
About the Author
Philipp Meyer grew up in Baltimore, dropped out of high school, and got his GED when he was sixteen. After spending several years volunteering at a trauma center in downtown Baltimore, he attended Cornell, where he studied English. Since graduating, Meyer has worked as a derivatives trader at UBS, a construction worker, and an EMT, among other jobs. His writing has been published in McSweeney's, The Iowa Review, Salon.com, and New Stories from the South. From 2005 to 2008 Meyer was a fellow at the Michener Center for Writers in Austin, Texas.
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?