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Friday, February 19, 2010

American Rust

Meyer, Philipp.  American Rust.

Told from various viewpoints and from different versions of stream of consciousness, American Rust is the story of economic deterioration that affects all aspects of life.  When the prosperous steel industry  collapsed, the small town of Buell in Pennsylvania began a slow death as jobs disappeared, families split apart, and the struggle to survive became more and more difficult.

Isaac English has been caring for his invalid father for years after his mother's suicide.  His sister Lee has always been his father's favorite, but Isaac finds himself the caretaker when Lee goes to Yale.  Isaac has endured his father's disdain and delayed his own dreams.  Finally, Isaac makes up his mind to leave, steals $4,000 dollars from his father, and takes off.

Issac's mental conversations with himself are often in the third person, referring to himself as "the kid."  On his way out of town, he convinces his friend Billy Poe to accompany him part of the way.  Isaac is almost all intellect; Poe is a former high school athlete whose physical capabilities are his strong point.

When the two of them get into trouble with some transients, it is, ironically, Isaac that rescues Poe, but with devastating results that will change the course of both of their lives and the lives of those who love them.

The novel looks at families that may once have been normal, but with the failure of the steel industry, the loss of jobs and self-respect, emotional trauma, and extreme economic hardships have become dysfunctional in different ways.

One strange feature (to me) is that all of the characters (with the exception of Billy Poe's father) take responsibility for their actions, their mistakes, and their failures.   Grace Poe (Billy's mother),  the local sheriff (Grace's occasional lover),  Lee, Isaac's father, and Isaac and Poe...all spend some time recognizing and taking responsibility for some of the choices that over the years have led to the event that affects them all.  I think it unusual that so many of the characters eschew rationalization and self-justification and recognize their own responsibility. 

Not totally dark, but certainly in the dusky realm, American Rust is both disturbing and compelling as it examines the American Dream gone wrong.  It has a particular resonance with the current economic times in which the dreams of a few years ago find themselves confronting unexpected and unprepared for financial realities.

Fiction.  Contemporary literature.  2009.  367 pages.


  1. I wonder if this book will win the Pulitzer for fiction this seems like that kind of novel.

  2. Bybee - It does seem like the kind of novel that might win. It isn't in my favorite reads for the year so far, but it has a lot to offer!