Valyruh’s #CBR5 Review #72: American Rust by Phillip Meyer

This is a powerful debut novel by the young Mr. Meyer, centered on the socio-economic decline of a small former steel town in Pennsylvania, where a sense of hopelessness pervades all, from the two main characters to the satellite of supporting characters. Isaac English and Billy Poe are two unlikely best friends not long out of high school and already stuck in a dead end. Isaac, despite a gifted intellect, is trapped in the dying town to care for his unsympathetic invalid father while former high school football star Billy, now just trailer trash who ignored a chance to get out of town on an athletic scholarship to college, is staring down the barrel of defeat. His mother Grace is a sad case, saddled with a drunken lout and mostly absent husband while fantasizing about her off-again/on-again love affair with the lonely town sheriff while worrying about her son.

Isaac decides to chuck it all and ride the rails Kerouac-style all the way to California to start a new life, but he and Billy barely get to the edge of town when they encounter three tramps with malevolent intent against the boys. Billy is seized by the men but Isaac somehow manages to extricate them both, not before accidentally killing one of the tramps. Isaac heads for the road and Billy accepts the charge of murder out of loyalty to his friend, and is tossed into prison. The rest of the novel follows their separate fates but intertwined, jumping back and forth between their different points of view, as well as those of the sheriff, Billy’s mom Grace, and even Isaac’s guilt-ridden sister Lee, who fled the town and left her younger brother stuck with their father.

Meyer’s writing is effective, conveying the despair afflicting the inhabitants of this rust-belt town and, as a New York Times reviewer put it, their “disheartening sense that they have somehow wound up on the wrong side of history, sidelined in a forgotten industrial town in the shiny new information age of globalization.”

The book is not totally grim—there are enough hopeful and even light-hearted moments to keep the plot moving forward—but it offers a depressingly honest portrayal of the fate of blue-collar America.