Philipp Meyer. American Rust. Spiegel & Grau, 2009. ISBN 978-0385527514 384 pp. $
In the shadow of an closed steel mill that unemployed 150,000 people in the last twenty years, half the population is on welfare, and the other half has returned to hunting & gathering. Isaac English’s sister Lee made it out, to Yale and then into a strategic marriage, but Isaac’s dreams of college and even part time work at the local library are crushed since he has to care for his disabled father, as his mother’s suicide left them alone, five years ago. Isaac plots his escape, inviting his football hero turned slacker friend Billy Poe to accompany him, at least to the abandoned factory on the town’s outskirts where Isaac plans to catch a slow moving coal trail out. A distasteful encounter with some transients at the factory has unpredicted outcomes, and Isaac skips town, leaving Poe–and his rap sheet–to take the fall.
Told from multiple points of view, this bleak novel examines financial and mental depression, the nature and ethics of love and relationships, the criminal justice system, and the minutiae and politics of small town post industrial life. I found the writing, with its multiple viewpoints, a challenge, most of all because Meyer shows Isaac’s character (who has had bouts of depression and an attempted suicide by drowning that Poe rescued him from) slips into a detached second person point of view with no explanation. Characters are strongly portrayed and realistically flawed, but not terribly sympathetic (the prodigal sister who doesn’t do much to help her family’s situation, and then feels guilty, the mildly attractive police chief who bends the law for his lover, the stereotyped ex-husband who comes sniffing around to get laid). The pacing is excellent, with a palpably oppressive setting, but the themes are heavy and adult. On a final note, sex is used to convey various types of romantically tinged relationships and I found all of them to be pretty wooden.