Monday, March 23, 2009

American Rust (2009)

My latest read from the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program is Philipp Meyer's American Rust (2009). Wow. The advance reading copies of books I've gotten through EarlyReviewers have been a little hit or miss, but American Rust is a hit all the way -- absolutely the best one I've read so far.

The novel takes place in present-day Buell, Pennsylvania -- a steel mill town where the mill closed down twenty years ago and things still haven't really bounced back. Surrounded by rusting factories and beautiful scenery, Isaac English and Billy Poe coast through post-high-school life with the inertia of a small town. Isaac has always been the smartest kid in the town, with the exception of his older sister Lee who fled Buell for Yale and marriage. With the idea of riding the rails to California and escaping the responsibilities of caring for his ailing father, Isaac steals $4000 from his dad's desk drawer and hits the road. Billy, the former star of the high school football team, who is quick to get into a fight and bad at holding a job, is Isaac's best friend. He agrees to accompany him on the start of his journey, but after an encounter with some homeless men in an abandoned machine shop during a rainstorm, one man is left dead and the two friends return to Buell to regroup. The aftermath of the killing brings us deeper into the lives of Isaac, Billy and their families with the chapters alternating perspective between the two young men, Isaac's sister and father, Billy's mother, and the local police chief.

Meyer is able to give each of his characters a strong and consistent voice, and the realism and depth of the characterization is highlighted by the stream of consciousness style of the narrative. This is a very engrossing, sad, rich and ultimately slightly hopeful novel about friendship, honor, isolation, family, selfishness, and responsibility. American Rust is Meyer's first novel, and much of it was written during his residency as a fellow at the Michener Center for Writers at UT. I can't wait to read what he does next.

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