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Philipp Meyer: American Rust

The title more or less gives it away. This is about how the United States is falling apart, economically, as jobs move offshore, factories close down and the old economy fades away. In this case, it is set in Pennsylvania but it could be in many US states (and in many other countries, as well). This is a novel, of course, and so is about the human effect of these changes, in this case on two young men who have opportunities – one is brilliant at science, the other is a top American football player – but who are somehow caught in this decaying society.

The two young men are Isaac English and Billy Poe. Isaac has had really high SAT scores at school and is thinking about going to college but only thinking about it and not doing much about it. His sister, Lee, was also brilliant and she went off to Yale. Their father, Henry, was injured in an industrial accident and has difficulty looking after himself. Their mother killed herself after Lee was accepted at Yale (but before she went). Isaac implicitly though not explicitly feels that he has to stay at home and look after his father. Despite this feeling, he has long had a plan to steal his father’s $4000 and run off to California and get into college there. He sets this plan into action at the start of the novel. Billy was a top tight end at high school and has been offered a chance to play football at various colleges, Colgate in particular. For various reasons he does not take these opportunities, though is still considering doing so. His father, Virgil, is a drunk and has left his mother, though his mother still sees him. His mother, Grace, has had affairs, particularly with Bud Harris, the chief of police, but she ends up going back to Virgil, despite his infidelity and drunkenness. Billy worked in the local hardware store but that job ended and he does not currently have a job. He is on parole, as he badly beat up another young man who was threatening him and only got out of a prison sentence because of the influence of Chief Harris. Isaac comes to Billy at the start of the novel and tries to persuade Billy to come with him. Billy declines but offers to accompany him to the railway tracks, where Isaac hopes to jump a train.

The two drift around somewhat and end up in a disused factory, to escape from the rain. Three drifters also come in and an altercation ensues, which ends up with one of the drifters dead. It is clear who is responsible for the death but things are a bit more complicated than that. The result involves not only Billy and Isaac but Chief Harris, Billy’s mother, Isaac’s sister and father and one or two other assorted characters, all of whom have their life changed as a result. Meyer certainly does not make it easy. Apart from the altercation with the drifters, there are several other deaths, several fights which result in serious injury and lives shattered. There is little happiness or joy in the novel, as each of the major characters has to face up to his or her own demons, some of which are caused by the altercation, some by the economic situation and some by the innate problem of the individual concerned.

Meyer’s point is clear. The economic crisis – by which he means the offshoring of jobs and the decline of manufacturing – has major repercussions on people, which the powers that be and the rich and powerful have wilfully ignored. He offers little hope except for escape and facing up to the reality and trying to carry on with your life, but it is not a pretty picture that he paints. His story is well told, even as it jumps from one unpleasant incident to another and makes Pennsylvania look something like a war zone. It is difficult to see how he will follow this.

Publishing history

First published 2009 by Spiegel & Grau