American Rust

Philipp Meyers debut novel is a crime drama focusing on a rust-belt town in decline and its human inhabitants, a microcosm for the economic hardships being played out all around our country.

Book Digest A few American writers have captured the desolation and despair of the areas in America afflicted by ravages of post-industrial decline—Russell Banks and Richard Russo come to mind. Now comes Philipp Meyer’s debut novel American Rust (Spiegel & Grau), set in a distressed rust-belt town near Pittsburgh, and which focuses on a small-town murder with six third-person accounts that carry the narrative weight of the macro- and micro-tragedies.

The smaller dramas involve…

…the killing of a vagrant by post-high school buddies Billy Poe and Isaac English, who are as different from each other as any two boys could be.

…Isaac’s sister Lee, who has escaped the ghost-town trap, matriculated at Yale, and married a scion of a Darien, Conn., family (read: she married rich), and who is also Billy’s lover.

…the town police chief Bud Harris, who is enthralled by Billy’s mother, Grace, and who is gored on the horns of the dilemma of how to deal with the accused-murderer son of his lover.

…the disabled and rapidly declining Henry English, who is the father of Isaac and Lee.

Of course, the greater cataclysm is the economic hardship(s) that, in countless ways, diminish the residents of these fading small towns. One of the special touches of Meyer’s post-industrial age idyll is a vivid connection to the beauty of the land and its hold on the inhabitants of this story: Most of the characters at one time or another find it useful to sit outside and look at the trees, the sunset, the stars, reflections on water—a hopeful sign that they have not yet become robotized.

This is a brilliantly realized story that is a painful rendition of the reality being played out all around our country. And an important reminder of social concerns that, as a society, Americans have not wanted to face up to. American Rust presents the human effects of our industrial decline more powerfully than any newspaper editorial or TV special report. Philipp Meyer is a fine writer, and he has nailed a difficult story.
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