When I was asked if this blog could be one of the stops on the virtual tour for the trade paperback edition of Philipp Meyer’s novel AMERICAN RUST, I didn’t hesitate to say yes. I recalled that Vince Keenan read the book and liked it, and while Vince’s tastes and mine don’t agree 100% of the time, the percentage is high enough that I was glad to give this novel a try. I’m glad I did, because it’s excellent.
I suppose any novel about a smart little guy and a dumb big guy will be compared to John Steinbeck’s OF MICE AND MEN somewhere along the way, and so it is here. And yet, as if aware of that, Meyer puts some subtle yet distinctive spins on that formula to create a book that’s very different from Steinbeck’s novel. (Which, come to think of it, I’ve never read. I guess it’s just that OF MICE AND MEN is so ingrained in the public consciousness that I know what happens in it, whether I’ve read it or not. But I really ought to remedy that, and not rely on the references to it in old Bugs Bunny cartoons.)
I didn’t mean to digress. The protagonists of AMERICAN RUST, a pair of young men named Isaac English and Billy Poe, have that Mutt-and-Jeff quality to them, size-wise, but while Isaac, the little one, is book-smart (he wants to be an astronomer), he’s sometimes lacking in common sense. And Poe, the big galoot of the duo, may lack Isaac’s IQ, but he’s more grounded in real life.
Meyer also sets up his novel so that you think you know what’s going to happen, but he starts pulling plot twists early on and never really stops. These aren’t dramatic, turn-on-a-dime twists, mind you, but they keep steering the novel in directions you don’t really expect.
The plot is fairly simple. Isaac wants to get out of the place where he grew up, a steel mill town in Pennsylvania where the mill has closed down and the resulting economic depression has settled over the entire area. His friend Poe agrees to go with him part of the way, to a place where Isaac can hop a freight and head west. But something happens along the way that keeps them from leaving, and that violent incident overshadows the rest of the novel as the two of them and the circle of people around them, including Poe’s mother and the local sheriff, are forced to deal with it.
The story itself is fine, but where AMERICAN RUST really shines is in its characters and its grim yet beautiful depiction of the setting. Meyer does an excellent job of capturing the desperation smoldering inside all these people. Some of that desperation is rooted in economics, but for the most part it’s just sheer humanity, the longing to connect with other people and the inability to do so, the easy falling back into a pattern of mistakes, the futility of best efforts wasted by events beyond our control. Meyer also paints a vivid picture of the ruined and dying Pennsylvania towns.
AMERICAN RUST isn’t a particularly pleasant book, but it’s very well-written and tells a compelling story, and it builds to a fine ending. One of the best books I’ve read recently, and highly recommended. I have one copy to give away, so if you'd like to enter the drawing for it, send me an email or let me know in the comments. The deadline is midnight Friday, and this one is open to only to readers in the United States and Canada.