American Rust, published in 2009 by Spiegel & Grau, is Phillip Meyer’s first novel. The story focuses on Buell, Pennsylvania, a dying steel town. Jobs are disappearing, methadone use is increasing, and home foreclosures are rising. It is a desperate set of circumstances for both adults and children.
Isaac English and Billy Poe are high school friends who decide to go on a journey to California, largely to escape their dead-end town. They make an odd pairing: English is small, intelligent, and awkward in social situations. Billy Poe is a football star and has a hot temper. People in town expected English to go to an Ivy League school. Poe turned down an athletic scholarship and chose to stay in Buell.
English has spent many years at home with his father who is an invalid. His sister, Lee, went to college after receiving a scholarship to Yale. She justifies leaving her brother and father behind by vowing to return. She expects to repair their lives by helping Isaac continue his education into college and by finding a nursing facility for her father.
On their travels, English and Poe meet violence with a group of transients. Isaac accidentally kills one of the transients who tried to rob Poe. The day after the crime, the two boys return to cover up the evidence. Poe is under suspicion for the crime.
Grace, Poe’s mother, is suffering from depression over her own life, as she struggles with the situation with her son. Grace also struggles with a relationship with the local sheriff. She once had dreams of escaping town, too. She had hoped to go to college to study to become a social worker. Her marriage to Poe’s father kept her from moving forward and she fears that her limitations may have created limitations for her son as well.
Reviewers note Meyer’s skill at developing characters that convey both the positive and negative aspects of small-town life. His treatment is at times sympathetic without being sentimental. One reviewer noted that his portraits of Billy and Isaac resemble a Salinger-like empathy for the alienation of young men.
In the end, the trajectories of these characters take unexpected twists and turns. With dreams dashed, they must find another purpose.