If the title “American Rust” isn’t clue enough, the dramatic cover designed by Matthew Lenning of a rusty railroad spike shedding iron oxide particles so fine you want to brush them off makes it clear that this first novel is about the slow wasting of America.
“American Rust” is set in the coal, coke, and steel country of Fayette County, Pennsylvania, on the Monongahela River near West Virginia. “Fayette-nam,” Philipp Meyer calls it. In the little town of Buell “on certain blocks there was still a pretense of keeping the trash picked up, but others had been abandoned completely.” This dying place is a quagmire from which leaving is a lifelong endeavor.
In the tradition of Twain, Joyce, Melville, and Conrad, “American Rust” tells the story of Isaac English, a young man hell-bent on leaving home. A slight, intellectual kid who aced his SAT’s but never excelled in the town’s sports-driven culture, Isaac finds himself stuck at home with an invalid father disabled from working the mills.
His sister Lee escaped to Yale and into a vacuous marriage to a Connecticut banker, leaving Isaac to deal with the suicide drowning of his Mexican mother, and his father’s own incapacity to discuss it.
Isaac’s closest friend is his football star neighbor Billy Poe, who gave up a scholarship at Colgate to hang around home living with his mother. Her gambling husband Virgil repeatedly abandons her and only an off and on affair with local sheriff Bud Harris provides her some hope.
As the novel opens, Isaac is packing to leave for Berkeley. He has scrounged his father’s savings from his mattress, packed whatever books, clothes, and small tools he has in his backpack, and is set to light out for California.
He and Poe plan to follow the river to the railroad tracks, then hop trains to Pittsburgh and on into the American west. He won’t buy a bus ticket because “it won’t mean anything – you could just buy another ticket and come back.” Isaac wants out for good.
They set out on a wet cold morning, but it soon becomes clear Poe will get cold feet. For all his physical strength and bravado, he can’t overcome the inertia of place and circumstances.
“When it came down to it, when it came down to making life decisions, either his fire got going or he froze. He either went ballistic or came to a full stop, dead in the water, he needed to think about things too long, examine them from every angle…There were men who would die heroes but he was not one of them. He had always known it.”
Before Isaac even sets foot on a boxcar, he and Poe are accosted in an abandoned mill by three vagrants, Poe blusters them into a fight, and Isaac, who at first flees the skirmish, picks up a rusting ball bearing and pitches it at the largest adversary –– killing him with a headshot.
All of this takes place in the first thirty pages. Meyer knows his epic themes and the classic form; after opening with the central act of murder, he turns the balance of the novel to setting the scene, tracing the past, moving the plot forward in the present, and offering a glimpse of the future.
Each chapter is told from the perspective of the five key characters: either Poe or his mother Grace, Isaac or Lee, or Bud Harris the rooted conscience of the county. The method works and Meyer works it well, but the tragic inevitability of the story and the relentlessly grim landscape take their toll.
Grace speaks for all of them in a telling description of Fayette County. “Things had been lean. They had waited and waited for the mills to reopen. But the mills just kept laying people off all up and down the valley…there was not a single job to be had. Not two nickels to rub together. Virgil’s cousin, who had nine and a half years in the mill and big payments, a nice house with an in ground swimming pool, he’d lost his house, his wife, and his daughter on the same day. The bank changed the locks and his wife took his daughters to Houston and Virgil’s cousin broke into his own house and shot himself in the kitchen.”
While many first novels become bogged down in complex family and community relationships, Meyer’s prose is neither sentimental nor repetitive. He has a story to tell and he stays on point; but in its unfolding, he confronts the conflicting pulls of family ties and independence without flinching. There are no easy paths for the characters in “American Rust.”
Meyer does hint at perhaps one chance for, if not happiness, at least some semblance of contentment. Bud Harris is the only character who has settled into his place in Fayette County by accepting his work, his dog, and his log cabin on a mountainside; but there is a trade-off. “You could make up anything you wanted, there were always stories to justify your choices. This house in the woods, for instance. Which both keeps you sane and guarantees you’ll be alone the rest of your life…”
This bleak conclusion is not the usual stuff of first novels where a young writer is often still trying to paint sunshine somewhere through the clouds. But Meyer is not so young, having already worked a modest career on Wall Street. Would that today’s exodus from our financial wreckage yields other equally talented first novelists.