three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
40-May-June-2009
user_rating: 
0

A-American RustThirty-four-year-old Philipp Meyer, a former construction worker and hedge fund trader, has published shorter fiction in McSweeney’s and the Iowa Review. American Rust, his first novel, was sold for a reported $400,000.

The Story: After years of caring for his invalid father, 20-year-old Isaac English has finally worked up the courage to leave Buell, Pennsylvania, a crumbling former steel mill town on the Monongahela River, and he convinces his best friend, hot-tempered Billy Poe, to join him. A sudden rainstorm forces them to take shelter in an abandoned factory building, where a gang of rowdy transients attacks them. One of the tramps is killed, and, in a blind panic, Isaac and Billy separate and head for home. When the wrong man is arrested for the crime, misplaced loyalties and a string of bad choices just may destroy both young men’s hopes and dreams for the future.
Spiegel & Grau. 384 pages. $24.95. ISBN: 0385527519

Kansas City Star 4 of 5 Stars
"In short, simple brush strokes, Meyer captures the beauty and destitution of Isaac’s world, showing why he must leave and yet finds it so hard to go. … Meyer subtly gets the reader deep inside their heads without slowing the pace of his story, which assumes, with each turn of the page, the momentum of a train wreck." Malcolm Garcia

New York Times 4 of 5 Stars
"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. … Although [the novel sounds] melodramatic in summary, although the narrative tumble of dominoes requires that the reader occasionally suspend logic … Mr. Meyer does such a persuasive job of grounding plot developments in his protagonists’ emotional histories that his story acquires the sort of propulsive sense of inevitability that made Dennis Lehane’s novel Mystic River such natural material for a film adaptation." Michiko Kakutani

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"Told in language both plaintive and grand, it’s a tale of murder and the struggle for redemption in a Pennsylvania steel town that will never reclaim its old prosperity. … Billy and Isaac’s Hamletesque indecision sometimes comes at the expense of the novel’s forward momentum, but the plot’s violent tension always reasserts itself." Ron Charles

Baltimore Sun 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Meyer (like Faulkner) builds his characters from the inside out and writes in a stream-of-consciousness style that, at times, is hard to follow, especially when Isaac and Billy muse about the merits of truthfulness in sentences made of fused fragments with little punctuation. … The plot turns on the biblical question, ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’" Diane Scharper

Cleveland Plain Dealer 3 of 5 Stars
"The novel’s examination of serious societal difficulties is marred toward the middle when the characters’ interior ruminations become claustrophobic, especially in the case of Isaac. … This ambitious novel revolves around questions of responsibility, choice and honor, and the last third of the book shakes up the reader with its mounting sense of dread." Susan Grimm

Dallas Morning News 3 of 5 Stars
"The first half of the book is a bit lopsided: The killing occurs quickly and is not particularly convincing, but after that the pace slows to establish who these people are, and what’s at stake. … Although press material compares the novel to the likes of John Steinbeck and Cormac McCarthy, those forbears seem rather lofty, and the novel has more in common with TV dramas such as Law & Order or The Wire." William J. Cobb

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 3 of 5 Stars
"The lack of a sole sympathetic protagonist is frustrating. … For all of its literary flaws, American Rust depicts a stunning, postindustrial landscape that we Pittsburghers, at least, admire like scars." Peter Oresick

Critical Summary

Compared by some critics to Faulkner and Steinbeck, Meyer explores moral corrosion set against a striking backdrop of physical corrosion in this engrossing, noir-style thriller. While he may not rise to the level of those authors, he has created richly complex and compelling—if essentially unlikable—characters as well as a perceptive portrait of disintegrating small-town life. Meyer’s prose is simple and stripped bare of sentimentality, but his stream-of-consciousness style and lack of punctuation can be confusing. There are also some clumsy moments, such as Isaac’s affected penchant for referring to himself in the third person. But these are "fleeting lapses," according to the New York Times. Meyer’s surprisingly compelling and gritty novel points to a rising new talent.

Reading Guide

POTENTIAL SPOILER ALERT!

The Reading Guide below is supplied by the book's publisher, and plot points may be revealed. We recommend that read the book before reading the guide.

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?

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Spiegel & Grau. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.