It is always interesting to see how a novelist tackles the long tradition of reinventing an iconic character. But in his ambitious debut, American Rust, Philipp Meyer not only carries the suggestion of a contemporary Huckleberry Finn to new dimensions, he pushes his narrative to further explore another familiar theme: what it means to be a working-class American man, trying to do the right thing despite being ravaged by economics and anger.
Meet Isaac English, a skinny, socially awkward 20-year-old who can see the answers to complex mathematical equations without the benefit of calculations. He's also got a great pitching arm, but more on that later. Like Huck, he's got an abusive father. While the elder English heaps praise on Isaac's older sister, Lee, for her success at Yale, he's verbally knocking Isaac down. Isaac in turn, refers to his father as "Little Hitler."
Lee ruminates on the vagaries of such intellect. "She knew he would make a much larger contribution than she ever would -- he cared only about things much bigger than his own life. Ideas, truths, the reasons things were. At Yale, her friends had accepted him immediately -- Isaac was a personality type everyone was familiar with. But not here."
It would be easy to peg Isaac as the archetypal nerd who doesn't fit comfortably into the insular working class of the decaying steel town of Buell, Pennsylvania. However, he is, like the rest of Meyer's characters, more complex and contradictory. Unlike Huck, Isaac made a conscious commitment to care for his old man, who has been confined to a wheelchair after an industrial fire. Trapped as a full-time nursemaid, Isaac turns over the course of events. "The three of them, Isaac, Lee, and his mother, had been like a family within the family. Then their mother had killed herself. Then Lee went off to Yale." Overwhelmed by his inability to cope alone, Isaac attempted to drown himself in the Mon River just like his mother, but was saved by his friend, Billy Poe.
After that, he's left to contemplate luck and fate -- the larger forces at work in his life and those around him. "Except eventually the luck runs out -- your sun turns into a red giant and the earth is burned whole. Giveth and taketh away. Of course by then he'd be long dead. But at least he'd have made his contribution. Being dead didn't excuse your responsibility to the ones still alive. If there was anything he was sure of, it was that."
But even luck and fate have their limits in Buell. Haunted by the ghost of an industry that took 150,000 jobs when it shipped out, punctuated by a dismantled mill standing "like some ancient ruin, its buildings grown over with bittersweet vine, devil's tear thumb and tree of heaven," it boasts nothing more than a downtown full of boarded-up, historic stone buildings and a remaining population passively waiting for something to happen.
Poe, once the star of their high school football team with a promising future, doesn't apply to college. He gives in to the pervasive stagnation by losing menial jobs, drinking beer, and barely keeping up the wood fire to heat his trailer. His mother, Grace, is only 41 years old but sees herself in the mirror this way: "Hair had gone entirely gray. Even her eyes were going dull, burning down like old headlights."
Among these malcontents, Isaac constructs an inner fortress of anger and resentment, swipes $4,000 of his father's savings, shoulders a backpack (and a heavier burden -- the contents of his active mind and struggling heart), and heads west. He's got a shred of a plan to ride the trains to California and apply to an astrophysics program after establishing residence.
In spite of his prescient warning, "Wherever you go, you still wake up and see the same face in the mirror," Poe comes along for the journey. They don't get far before an encounter at an abandoned machine shop with a group of transients goes terribly awry. To defend Poe, Isaac uses his skillful aim and strikes one of the men directly in the skull with an industrial ball bearing, killing him instantly.
Now the two are even -- each has saved the other's life. They return to their homes with Isaac accepting this as just a delay of plans. Poe sinks under the weight of his own vulnerability. On the second attempt to escape, Isaac leaves Poe and a potential murder charge behind.
The story turns even darker as it navigates through a landscape of filthy trains and squatter camps populated with vagrant con artists. The constant fear for his money and his life fill Isaac's days. Poe is arrested, having never once considered giving Isaac's name to the authorities. The harsh flourescent lights of prison throw his defenselessness into high relief; a football swagger no longer relevant or able to protect him in this tribal society of convicted criminals.
For all of these gritty realities, Meyer's work has already invited comparisons to Cormac McCarthy, whose finely crafted tales pit good against evil -- with the latter the champion -- in Outer Dark and Blood Meridian. But neither good nor evil is victorious in American Rust. Rather, Meyer chronicles a paradigm shift as Lee notes, "There was something particularly American about it -- blaming yourself for bad luck -- that resistance to seeing your life as affected by social forces, a tendency to blame larger problems on individual behavior. The ugly reverse of the American Dream."
However ugly or bleak it may be, a small seed does grow and bloom organically in place of societal blight, cultivated by a chorus of voices that drive the feverish plot to its crescendo. This is perhaps Meyer's greatest accomplishment with American Rust. In the tradition of Twain and other authors who write in the plainsong of the disenfranchised, Meyer's narrative draws us fully in. By completely inhabiting his fictional world we can see hope as vividly, or vaguely, as the characters do themselves. It allows us to understand how rust and decay can give way to an optimism that, however fragile, keeps us going -- even in spite of ourselves. --Lydia Dishman
Lydia Dishman is an award-winning writer and editor based in the Southeast.
…[a] powerful first novel…Told in language both plaintive and grand…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.
The Washington Post
Mr. Meyer…conjures up this blue-collar Rust Belt town with the same sort of social detail and emotional verisimilitude that Richard Russo has brought to his depictions of upstate New York and Russell Banks has brought to downstate New Hampshire. He writes about his characters' lives in Buell with sympathy and unsentimental clarity…American Rust announces the arrival of a gifted new writera writer who understands how place and personality and circumstance can converge to create the perfect storm of tragedy.
The New York Times
Within just a few pages of meeting the central players, we're allowed such intimate access to the rhythm of their thoughts that it becomes easy to fathomeven relate totheir blunders. We hope they will not fail, and this hope makes their failures good reading…American Rust is a bold, absorbing novel with a keen interest in how communities falter. Meyer knows that reductive explanations aren't sufficient, and he moves deftly from the panoramic to the microscopicfrom sweeping views of a dying valley to the quiet ruminations of a mind behind bars.
The New York Times Book Review
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. (Feb.)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
The dying steel towns of southwestern Pennsylvania are the somber canvas upon which Meyer paints this tale of class, crime, and circumscribed choices. Lifelong buddies Isaac and Billy find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. Now Isaac's on the run, Billy's taking the fall for a murder he didn't commit, and their respective families struggle to make sense of what's happened. Meyer's slow, eloquent pacing and lofty vocabulary occasionally seem at odds with the grim realities of Isaac and Billy's adventures, which include prison scenes and tales of life on the road. However, the elegant phrasing provides an ironic contrast between life as it really is and life as the characters wish it could be. Meyer's greatest strength as a novelist lies in his poignantly well-rounded characters, particularly Billy's long-suffering mother, Grace, who repeatedly sacrifices her own prospects for those of her child. A Pandora's box of debate for book clubs, this novel is an essential purchase for libraries in Pennsylvania and surrounding states and strongly recommended for all other fiction collections.
Leigh Anne Vrabel
Part earnest Dreiserian tragedy, part Cormac McCarthy novel transplanted to the Steel Belt, Meyer's debut in the end takes a gothic turn into blockbuster-movie bloodbath. Gifted, 20-year-old Isaac has the double bad luck of being born in a dying Pennsylvania steel town and of having an equally smart sister who's already escaped, to Yale and afterward to marriage, leaving him home to tend his disabled father. At the novel's beginning, Isaac has stolen $4,000 from the old man's desk and is lighting out with the quixotic idea that he'll hop a freight and somehow reach the Shangri-La of Berkeley and an astrophysics degree. Isaac is accompanied for the first stretch by his friend Poe, an ex-football star on probation because of a brutal fight that could have earned him serious time except that the sheriff, his mother's lover, intervened. When they seek refuge from the weather in an abandoned factory along the tracks, Isaac and Poe encounter other refugees, transients of longer standing and rougher mien. Hair-triggered Poe incites a fight, and Isaac kills a man with a stone thrown in defense of his friend. This death sets in motion a complex plot that centers on the impossibility of escape, be it from place, circumstance or character. Meyer does a terrific job capturing the tone and ethos of his setting, half postindustrial wasteland and half prelapsarian Eden (OK, four-fifths postindustrial wasteland and one-fifth prelapsarian Eden). Several of the alternating narrators are compellingly drawn, especially the sheriff and Isaac, whose flight is a hellishly compacted journey from innocence to experience. The self-styled "Kid" encounters misery and perfidy everywhere he goes-until he decides toface the music and turns homeward. Despite some contrived plot developments, a grimly powerful hybrid: provocative literary fiction crossed with a propulsive thriller.
Read an Excerpt
Isaac's mother was dead five years but he hadn't stopped thinking about her. He lived alone in the house with the old man, twenty, small for his age, easily mistaken for a boy. Late morning and he walked quickly through the woods toward town--a small thin figure with a backpack, trying hard to keep out of sight. He'd taken four thousand dollars from the old man's desk; Stolen, he corrected himself. The nuthouse prisonbreak. Anyone sees you and it's Silas get the dogs.
Soon he reached the overlook: green rolling hills, a muddy winding river, an expanse of forest unbroken except for the town of Buell and its steelmill. The mill itself had been like a small city, but they had closed it in 1987, partially dismantled it ten years later; it now stood like an ancient ruin, its buildings grown over with bittersweet vine, devil's tear thumb, and tree of heaven. The footprints of deer and coyotes crisscrossed the grounds; there was only the occasional human squatter.
Still, it was a quaint town: neat rows of white houses wrapping the hillside, church steeples and cobblestone streets, the tall silver domes of an Orthodox cathedral. A place that had recently been well-off, its downtown full of historic stone buildings, mostly boarded now. On certain blocks there was still a pretense of keeping the trash picked up, but others had been abandoned completely. Buell, Fayette County, Pennsylvania. Fayette-nam, as it was often called.
Isaac walked the railroad tracks to avoid being seen, though there weren't many people out anyway. He could remember the streets at shiftchange, the traffic stopped, the flood of men emerging from the billet mill coated with steeldust and flickering in the sunlight; his father, tall and shimmering, reaching down to lift him. That was before the accident. Before he became the old man.
It was forty miles to Pittsburgh and the best way was to follow the tracks along the river--it was easy to jump a coal train and ride as long as you wanted. Once he made the city, he'd jump another train to California. He'd been planning this for a month. A long time overdue. Think Poe will come along? Probably not.
On the river he watched barges and a towboat pass, engines droning. It was pushing coal. Once the boat was gone the air got quiet and the water was slow and muddy and the forests ran down to the edge and it could have been anywhere, the Amazon, a picture from National Geographic. A bluegill jumped in the shallows--you weren't supposed to eat the fish but everyone did. Mercury and PCB. He couldn't remember what the letters stood for but it was poison.
In school he'd tutored Poe in math, though even now he wasn't sure why Poe was friends with him--Isaac English and his older sister were the two smartest kids in town, the whole Valley, probably; the sister had gone to Yale. A rising tide, Isaac had hoped, that might lift him as well. He'd looked up to his sister most of his life, but she had found a new place, had a husband in Connecticut that neither Isaac nor his father had met. You're doing fine alone, he thought. The kid needs to be less bitter. Soon he'll hit California--easy winters and the warmth of his own desert. A year to get residency and apply to school: astrophysics. Lawrence Livermore. Keck Observatory and the Very Large Array. Listen to yourself--does any of that still make sense?
Outside the town it got rural again and he decided to walk the trails to Poe's house instead of taking the road. He climbed steadily along. He knew the woods as well as an old poacher, kept notebooks of drawings he'd made of birds and other animals, though mostly it was birds. Half the weight of his pack was notebooks. He liked being outside. He wondered if that was because there were no people, but he hoped not. It was lucky growing up in a place like this because in a city, he didn't know, his mind was like a train where you couldn't control the speed. Give it a track and direction or it cracks up. The human condition put names to everything: bloodroot rockflower whip-poor-will, tulip bitternut hackberry. Shagbark and pin oak. Locust and king_nut. Plenty to keep your mind busy.
Meanwhile, right over your head, a thin blue sky, see clear to outer space: the last great mystery. Same distance to Pittsburgh--couple miles of air and then four hundred below zero, a fragile blanket. Pure luck. Odds are you shouldn't be alive--think about that, Watson. Can't say it in public or they'll put you in a straitjacket.
Except eventually the luck runs out--your sun turns into a red giant and the earth is burned whole. Giveth and taketh away. The entire human race would have to move before that happened and only the physicists could figure out how, they were the ones who would save people. Of course by then he'd be long dead. But at least he'd have made his contribution. Being dead didn't excuse your responsibility to the ones still alive. If there was anything he was sure of, it was that.
Poe lived at the top of a dirt road in a doublewide trailer that sat, like many houses outside town, on a large tract of woodland. Eighty acres, in this case, a frontier sort of feeling, a feeling of being the last man on earth, protected by all the green hills and hollows.
There was a muddy four-wheeler sitting in the yard near Poe's old Camaro, its three-thousand-dollar paintjob and blown transmission. Metal sheds in various states of collapse, a Number 3 Dale Earnhardt flag pinned across one of them, a wooden game pole for hanging deer. Poe was sitting at the top of the hill, looking out toward the river from his folding chair. If you could find a way to pay your mortgage, people always said, it was like living on God's back acre.
The whole town thought Poe would go to college to keep playing ball, not exactly Big Ten material but good enough for somewhere, only two years later here he was, living in his mother's trailer, sitting in the yard and looking like he intended to cut firewood. This week or maybe next. A year older than Isaac, his glory days already past, a dozen empty beer cans at his feet. He was tall and broad and squareheaded and at two hundred forty pounds, more than twice the size of Isaac. When he saw him, Poe said:
"Getting rid of you for good, huh?"
"Hide your tears," Isaac told him. He looked around. "Where's your bag?" It was a relief to see Poe, a distraction from the stolen money in his pocket.
Poe grinned and sipped his beer. He hadn't showered in days--he'd been laid off when the town hardware store cut its hours and was putting off applying to Wal-Mart as long as possible.
"As far as coming along, you know I've got all this stuff to take care of." He waved his arm generally at the rolling hills and woods in the distance. "No time for your little caper."
"You really are a coward, aren't you?"
"Christ, Mental, you can't seriously want me to come with you."
"I don't care either way," Isaac told him.
"Looking at it from my own selfish point of view, I'm still on goddamn probation. I'm better off robbing gas stations."
"Sure you are."
"You ain't gonna make me feel guilty. Drink a beer and sit down a minute."
"I don't have time," said Isaac.
Poe glanced around the yard in exasperation, but finally he stood up. He finished the rest of his drink and crumpled the can. "Alright," he said. "I'll ride with you up to the Conrail yard in the city. But after that, you're on your own."
From a distance, from the size of them, they might have been father and son. Poe with his big jaw and his small eyes and even now, two years out of school, a nylon football jacket, his name and player number on the front and buell eagles on the back. Isaac short and skinny, his eyes too large for his face, his clothes too large for him as well, his old backpack stuffed with his sleeping bag, a change of clothes, his notebooks. They went down the narrow dirt road toward the river, mostly it was woods and meadows, green and beautiful in the first weeks of spring. They passed an old house that had tipped face-first into a sinkhole--the ground in the Mid-Mon Valley was riddled with old coal mines, some properly stabilized, others not. Isaac winged a rock and knocked a ventstack off the roof. He'd always had a good arm, better than Poe's even, though of course Poe would never admit it.
Just before the river they came to the Cultrap farm with its cows sitting in the sun, heard a pig squeal for a long time in one of the outbuildings.
"Wish I hadn't heard that."
"Shit," said Poe. "Cultrap makes the best bacon around."
"It's still something dying."
"Maybe you should stop analyzing it."
"You know they use pig hearts to fix human hearts. The valves are basically the same."
"I'm gonna miss your factoids."
"Sure you will."
"I was exaggerating," said Poe. "I was being ironic."
They continued to walk.
"You know I would seriously owe you if you came with."
"Me and Jack Kerouac Junior. Who stole four grand from his old man and doesn't even know where the money came from."
"He's a cheap bastard with a steelworker's pension. He's got plenty of money now that he's not sending it all to my sister."
"Who probably needed it."
"Who graduated from Yale with about ten scholarships while I stayed back and looked after Little Hitler."
Poe sighed. "Poor angry Isaac."
"Who wouldn't be?"
"Well to share some wisdom from my own father, wherever you go, you still wake up and see the same face in the mirror."
"Words to live by."
"The old man's been around some."
"You're right about that."
"Come on now, Mental."
They turned north along the river, toward Pittsburgh; to the south it was state forest and coal mines. The coal was the reason for steel. They passed another old plant and its smokestack, it wasn't just steel, there were dozens of smaller industries that supported the mills and were supported by them: tool and die, specialty coating, mining equipment, the list went on. It had been an intricate system and when the mills shut down, the entire Valley had collapsed. Steel had been the heart. He wondered how long it would be before it all rusted away to nothing and the Valley returned to a primitive state. Only the stone would last.
For a hundred years the Valley had been the center of steel production in the country, in the entire world, technically, but in the time since Poe and Isaac were born, the area had lost 150,000 jobs--most of the towns could no longer afford basic services; many no longer had any police. As Isaac had overheard his sister tell someone from college: half the people went on welfare and the other half went back to hunting and gathering. Which was an exaggeration, but not by much.
There was no sign of any train and Poe was walking a step ahead, there was only the sound of the wind coming off the river and the gravel crunching under their feet. Isaac hoped for a long one, which all the bends in the river would keep slow. The shorter trains ran a lot faster; it was dangerous to try to catch them.
He looked out over the river, the muddiness of it, the things buried underneath. Different layers and all kinds of old crap buried in the muck, tractor parts and dinosaur bones. You aren't at the bottom but you aren't exactly at the surface, either. You are having a hard time seeing things. Hence the February swim. Hence the ripping off the old man. Feels like days since you've been home but it has probably only been two or three hours; you can still go back. No. Plenty of things worse than stealing, lying to yourself for example, your sister and the old man being champions in that. Acting like the last living souls.
Whereas you yourself take after your mother. Stick around and you're bound for the nuthouse. Embalming table. Stroll on the ice in February, the cold like being shocked. So cold you could barely breathe but you stayed until it stopped hurting, that was how she slipped in. Take it for a minute and you start to go warm. A life lesson. You would not have risen until now--April--the river gets warmer and the things that live inside you, quietly without you knowing it, it is them that make you rise. The teacher taught you that. Dead deer in winter look like bones, though in summer they swell their skins. Bacteria. Cold keeps them down but they get you in the end.
You're doing fine, he thought. Snap out of it.
But of course he could remember Poe dragging him out of the water, telling Poe I wanted to see what it felt like is all. Simple experiment. Then he was under the trees, it was dark and he was running, mud-covered, crashing through deadfall and fernbeds, there was a rushing in his ears and he came out in someone's field. Dead leaves crackling; he'd been cold so long he no longer felt cold at all. He knew he was at the end. But Poe had caught up to him again.
"Sorry what I said about your dad," he told Poe now.
"I don't give a shit," said Poe.
"We gonna keep walking like this?"
"Maybe I'm just being sad."
"Maybe you need to man up a little." Isaac grinned but Poe stayed serious.
"Some of us have their whole lives ahead of them. Others--"
"You can do whatever you want."
"Lay off it," said Poe.
Isaac let him walk ahead. The wind was picking up and snapping their clothes.
"You good to keep going if this storm comes in?"
"Not really," said Poe.
"There's an old plant up there once we get out of these woods. We can find a place to wait it out in there."
From the Hardcover edition.