Posted by: Jeanie F | June 3, 2010

American Rust by Philipp Meyer

American Rust tells the story of two young men – Isaac English and Billy Poe – whose lives are shaped by the times and circumstances that surround them. Two years out of high school, both seem to be living in “neutral” in spite of the fact that each showed promise in high school – Isaac as the smartest boy in his school and Billy as the star athlete. They live in Buell, Fayette County, Pennsylvania, a town that once thrived on its steel mill until the mill closed down. One of the standout features of this text is the rich sense of place, in which the setting becomes almost a character, so interwoven it is to the text. For example, in describing the abandoned mill, Meyer writes:

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.

The juxtaposition of the natural against the ruined runs throughout the story and heightens the sense of desolation that builds to the climax.

It is against this bleak backdrop that Isaac and Poe exist – on little more than a subsistence level. Following his mother’s suicide Isaac, who could have gone to any college of his choice, stays home to care for his disabled father. Billy, the recipient of football scholarships to several good schools, lives at home with his mother, working odd jobs and tinkering with his old Camaro. He claims to have opted out of college because he never took to school, but there’s also the issue of being on probation for assault. That this disparate pair should be friends is due to the fact that Billy saved Isaac’s life by pulling him out of the frozen river. We enter the story as Isaac steals seed money from his father and prepares to strike out on his own. The fact that he tries to pull Poe into the adventure with him initiates a string of events that impact the lives of both men in ways that spiral out of control.

Meyer has used some effective devices to bring this story to life, including a point of view that rotates among six characters: Isaac and Poe, as the main characters, but also Isaac’s sister, Lee, and their father; Grace, Billy’s mother; Bud Harris, the sheriff and on-again-off-again lover of Grace. For the most part this works to give us an understanding of how events come to be that might otherwise seem too coincidental.

The characterization of Poe and Isaac is also interesting, as their strengths and weaknesses complement each other like interlocking puzzle pieces. Isaac is dreamy, intellectual; Poe grounded in the here and now. Isaac deliberates, hesitates; Poe acts impulsively. Even physical opposites, Isaac is small and thin; Poe large and muscular.

What was ultimately most satisfying about this compelling novel is that each character, in his or her own way, comes to accept responsibility for the part he or she plays in the events, many of which have potentially disastrous outcomes. There are no real heros and no real villains. These are just people put into difficult situations who falter and recover as we all hope to do.

Grade: A-


  1. I JUST bought this. Had been waiting for the paperback to come out and then forgot about. As a kid from the Midwest, I also soak these kinds of regionalist books right up. I am helpless against them. Thanks for the review.

  2. I love books with a strong sense of place, too – it saves me from having to go to some of the less desirable ones! 🙂

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