Philipp Meyer’s debut novel, American Rust, is set amid the decaying industrial landscape of Mon Valley, Pennsylvania. The fictional town of Buell, once dependent on a steel mill that now stands “like some ancient ruin,” is home to retirees and the young: those who have no choice but to stay and those who haven’t mustered the courage to leave. The story focuses on two of the town’s marooned youth: Isaac English, a skinny twenty-year-old whiz kid who hopes to study astrophysics at UC Berkeley, and Billy Poe, an ex-high-school-football star proud of having “given the entire town the middle finger” when he turned down a scholarship to Colgate College. Isaac hasn’t pursued his dream because he has been caring for his father, who was injured in a mill accident. And Poe wants to stop “being the kind of punk that puts everything off till tomorrow” but can’t see “why people would ever want to leave” Buell.
The characters set their lives in dramatic motion the day Isaac steals four thousand dollars from his father to run away to California and invites Poe to come along. Poe declines but offers to ride with him as far as the Conrail yard in Pittsburgh. Caught in a downpour on the way to the train, they take refuge in an abandoned machine shop. When a fight breaks out with some vagrants, Isaac throws an industrial ball bearing at one of them, hitting him in the forehead and killing him instantly. Poe, who has a history of violence and nearly beat a boy to death in a fight a year earlier, shoulders the blame when Isaac takes off. A combination of factors prevents Poe from telling the truth: In Buell, “being a rat was lower than being a murderer”; he’s in love with Isaac’s sister, Lee; and he feels responsible for having started the fight. In this, he shares the philosophy of many of the town’s people—that you can’t control what happens, only how it’s interpreted. “They’re simple facts is all,” Isaac says. “Your only power is choosing what to make of them.”
In a third-person narrative that moves round-robin style from one character to the next, Meyer deftly captures individual speech patterns. Chaotic run-on sentences, for instance, mark Poe’s chapters, revealing how life comes at him, a barrage of ideas and facts:
The thought of Otto lying there rotting a goddam coyote eating his face it made Poe feel almost warmer, if you’d asked him that morning he’d never hated anyone but now by Jesus he hated the dead one Otto the way he smiled seeing Poe getting held literally by his balls and even more he hated the one with the beard who’d cut his neck and held him like that and as for the third one, the older one, he had not meant to kick him so hard.
Isaac, on the other hand, is stricken with grief by his mother’s suicide and weighed down by his intellect. His thoughts come slowly and in fragments: “Lives with honor— one of the few. . . . Accepts the company of the best and the worst. Accepts the company of himself.” But Poe isn’t just a lunkhead, and Isaac isn’t merely a genius. Poe can achieve a trancelike state while hunting and playing football that allows him to live “outside himself.” And Isaac relies on remarkable stamina and an almost superhuman ability to go without food and water while he’s on the run.
Buell’s residents are “beings in time, moving toward . . . expiration.” Like the steel mills that were once the “heart” of the valley but have now “all rusted away,” they, too, have lost heart. Isaac’s sister made it out of Buell, graduated from Yale, and married a socialite, but she has lost all sense of integrity: She abandoned her father and brother, cheats on her husband, and is still prone to that “old feeling that there were terrible things in motion.” For Isaac and Poe, Lee symbolizes what it means to escape from Buell, yet money, status, and experience of the wider world fail to bring her relief. (She admits that Sartre is as good a sleep aid as Ambien.) Like Isaac and Poe, she is trapped in the adage “Lie to yourself and discover true happiness.”
But such sentiments feel a bit schematic—much like the novel’s plot, which tends to override nuanced characterization. Still, Meyer never ceases to display a gift for evoking setting, as when he places us, almost viscerally, in prison with Poe:
There was a hierarchy at the weight pile, the shotcallers and their lieutenants pumping out squats and dips and hanging out against the fences while a few dozen yard rats, the meth-heads and assorted trailer folk, they maintained a sort of perimeter, ran errands, occasionally stood close together so as to block a happening from the view of the guards.
And Meyer never lets us forget that Fayette County, or “Fayette-nam,” as residents call it, embodies all of the potential and ruin in each of us. “Neat rows of white houses” are seen “wrapping the hillside,” while on the other side are boarded-up buildings—“the closed Montgomery Wards, the closed pharmacy, the closed Supper Club, the closed McDonald’s.” The spirit of abandonment and decay, Meyer suggests, has worked its way into Poe and Isaac’s souls; they, too, are boarded up. Although the young men eventually make life-changing decisions, their choices remain tinged with hopelessness. Often disheartening, American Rust reminds us that there is, indeed, much to be bitter about in towns that have been left behind.
Sarah Fay is an advisory editor of the Paris Review.