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American Rust: A Novel (Random House Reader's Circle) Paperback – January 12, 2010

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Editorial Reviews Review

Amazon Best of the Month, February 2009: Buell, Pennsylvania lies in ruins, a dying--if not already dead--steel town, where even the lush surrounding country seethes with concealed industrial toxins. When Isaac English and Billy Poe--a pair of high-school friends straight out of Steinbeck--embark on a starry-eyed cross-country escape to California, a violent encounter with a trio of transients leaves one dead, prying the lid off a rusted can of failed hope and small-town secrets. American Rust is Philipp Meyer's first novel, and his taut, direct prose strikes the perfect tone for this kaleidoscope of fractured dreams, elevating a book that otherwise might be relentlessly dour to the level of honest and unflinching storytelling. (Interestingly, Meyer has a fan in Patricia Cornwell, who name-checked American Rust in her latest novel, Scarpetta, even though Meyer's book hadn't been released yet.) --Jon Foro

Amazon Exclusive: Philipp Meyer on American Rust

In the late seventies, when I was five, my parents moved us to a blue-collar neighborhood in Baltimore. As was the case with most of the old cities of the northeast, Baltimore was in the throes of a serious social collapse. Any industry you could name was falling apart--steel, ship-building, textiles--not to mention the docks and the port. The middle class was evaporating. Even among the neighborhood kids, there was a sense that things were getting worse, not better.

That neighborhood was called Hampden, a place since immortalized in many of John Waters’s films. Back then, even in Baltimore’s often shoddy public schools, Hampden was not a place you wanted to admit you were from--my brother and I often lied when asked where we lived. There were police cars and ambulances on our street with some frequency, men passed out on the sidewalk. My father, a graduate student, once went outside with his pistol to check on a man whom he thought had been murdered near our house.

Even so, there was a strong community and the people who were able did their best to watch out for each other. These were good people, working people, but in the end that didn’t matter--their jobs had disappeared and they tumbled from the middle class into the ranks of what we now call the “working poor.” It was an early lesson into the way life worked for certain segments of our society.

Many years later, after a long and roundabout route to get into and eventually graduate from college, I ended up taking a job on Wall Street. I was proud of my new job, proud I’d gone from high school dropout to Cornell University graduate to Wall Street trader. Naturally, complications soon arose.

One surprising thing was that while in most of the country the closing of a factory was seen as tragic, on Wall Street it was nearly a cause for celebration. Whatever the company in question, closing an American factory caused their stock price to go up. The more jobs were outsourced, the more the company executives made on their stock options, the more investment bankers racked up multi-million dollar bonuses. Meanwhile, a short distance away, thousands of families were being devastated.

While I still have many close friends on Wall Street, after a few years there I knew it was the wrong path. I cared about people, I cared about their stories, I’d stopped caring about money. After leaving the bank I spent my time writing and working jobs in construction and as an EMT; I moved back in with my parents and lived in their basement. In 2005, I lucked into a writing scholarship at the Michener Center for Writers in Austin, Texas, where I wrote the majority of American Rust.

There are thousands of communities in which this book could have taken place, but Pittsburgh and the Monongahela Valley area, where I have many friends and family, seemed like the most natural setting. After thriving for a hundred years, helping to win our wars and build our great cities, the Mon Valley now offers a striking combination of rural beauty and industrial decay. Once the epitome of the American Dream--full of hard-working towns where you could make a name for yourself--the Valley today has the feel of a forgotten place.

This was the backdrop of the story I wanted to tell in American Rust--how events beyond our control can change the way we define our humanity. I think Americans are a tough people, but often our best doesn’t come out until we’re pushed our hardest. This is what I set out to do in the book. I wanted to examine the old American themes of the individual versus society, freedom versus determinism. I wanted to investigate what really makes us human.

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

In his unrelentingly downbeat debut, Meyer offers up a character-driven near-noir set in Buell, a dying Pennsylvania steel town, where aimless friends Billy Poe and Isaac English are trapped by economic and personal circumstance. Just before their halfhearted escape to California, Isaac accidentally kills a transient who tries to rob Poe. The boys return to the crime scene the next day with plans to cover up the crime, setting the plot in motion. Poe is soon under suspicion, and Isaac, distraught after discovering Poe has been carrying on a relationship with Isaac's sister, Lee, sets off for California alone. Meanwhile, Poe's mother, Grace, mourns her own lost opportunities, broods over her son and pines for her on-again-off-again love, the local sheriff. A fully realized tragic heroine, Grace is the poignant thrust of the novel, embodying enough rural tragedy to nearly atone for the novel's weakness: a sense that some of the plot mechanics are arbitrary. Still, Meyer has a thrilling eye for failed dreams and writes uncommonly tense scenes of violence, and in the character of Grace creates a woeful heroine. Fans of Cormac McCarthy or Dennis Lehane will find in Meyer an author worth watching. (Feb.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Series: Random House Reader's Circle
  • Paperback: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Spiegel & Grau; Spiegal & Grau Paperback Edition edition (January 12, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385527527
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385527521
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.8 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (348 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #103,522 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Philipp Meyer grew up in a working class neighborhood in Baltimore, where he dropped out of high school and got a GED. After five years working as a bike mechanic and an orderly in a trauma center, he decided to attend college, getting into Cornell University at the age of 22. He graduated with a degree in English and he got a job on Wall Street as a derivatives trader. After paying off his student loans, he left Wall Street hoping write full time, but after several years of failure moved back to Baltimore and took jobs as an EMT and construction worker. In 2005 he received a fellowship from the University of Texas's Michener Center for Writers. In 2009 he published his first novel American Rust, which won a Los Angeles Times Book Prize, was an Economist Book of the Year, a New York Times Notable Book, a Washington Post Book of the Year, and made numerous other "best-of" list. Meyer is a Guggenheim Fellow and one of the second generation of the New Yorker's 20 best writers under 40. His second novel, The Son, is being published in fifteen languages. He lives mostly in Austin, Texas.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

131 of 142 people found the following review helpful By Daniel Bell on June 23, 2009
Format: Hardcover
As my four regular readers can attest, I do not have much good to say about the contemporary novelists held in high regard by literary critics and prize juries. As a rule, I don't trust the taste of book critics. Too many have joined the Cult of the Sentence, deeming that fiction best that piles up the most standout sentences, imagery and "lyrical" language, the accumulated weight of which apparently makes a novel literature with a capital L. It's been a long time since I picked up a book from the New Fiction shelf at the bookstore, read the first page and walked to the register with it. The triumph of style over story in modern literary fiction leaves me cold, bitter and buying classics.

Then I read a couple of reviews of American Rust. (Yes, I still do read reviews, even the New York Times Book Review, hoping against all evidence for change, going back again and again like an abused spouse.) The only thing in the reviews that got me looking for the novel was the subject matter: the effect of industrial collapse on America workers. Being from a long line of working class rednecks, I decided to give another new author a chance based on that alone.

And I'm glad I did. Philipp Meyer has produced a book that, by the end, had me comparing his novel to Richard Wright's Native Son and John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath. Like them, he masterfully weaves into the story the socioeconomic and political pressures that bear on the lives of his characters without preaching, without beating us over the head with a morality tale. Yet you can't come away from it without knowing in your bones the corrosive effects of industrial decline on the lives of his working class characters. He has deep sympathy for all of his characters, the "good" and the "bad.
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85 of 97 people found the following review helpful By Lee Shipman on February 17, 2009
Format: Hardcover
I had the pleasure of reading an advanced copy of American Rust, a powerful debut novel and a rare find: compelling literary fiction with the engine of a gripping thriller. The story of the fallout of a murder on a group of connected characters is set in an economically depressed region of Pennsylvania whose struggle, like so many of these people, is all the more difficult in the (often literal) shadow of its former greatness and promise. And that's what Meyer does so well here, beyond creating a engrossing page-turner -- we get to know all of these terrifically realized characters through their perspective, and those intimate portraits web together to give us something bigger: the complex relationship between people and place, individuals and community. And though the characters are all bound by this dying town and the blowback of the crime that affects them all, the division of the story into these individual perspectives gives a real sense of their isolation; the characters might find salvation in each other, if they could only communicate their need for it. American Rust is an overall outstanding read from a major new talent.
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32 of 37 people found the following review helpful By S. Taylor on October 19, 2009
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
As a Pittsburgh native who watched the collapse of the steel industry, I thought I'd find more in this book to relate to. The characters were well-drawn and sympathetic, but the plot seemed more melodramatic than necessary. The ending also left a lot to be desired; full resolution was obviously not possible, but a bit more information on what happened after the denouement would've been welcome (and no, it's not the sort of book that lends itself to a sequel). I can't say I'm sorry I read it, but on the other hand I have other books in my to-read stack that I wish I'd gotten to first.
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50 of 60 people found the following review helpful By Melinda Seifert on February 1, 2009
Format: Hardcover
I was privileged to receive an advance readers copy of American Rust. As the characters developed I found myself intrigued by the choices we make in life that take us where we go. The writing is dramatic, the plot intense and the story compelling. I can't believe this is Philipp Meyer's first novel. I know it sounds corny, but reading American Rust I was struck with the thought that if you had a little Cormac McCarthy, Hemingway and Steinbeck--you'd have Philipp Meyer.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who reads books for their literary value and who value the imagery that creates the type of experience that comes back to haunt you long after you've read the last sentence and closed the book.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I picked up `American Rust' simply because the premise sounded promising and the cover art was utterly mesmerizing. Upon receiving the book I read a little review on the outset of the novel that likened Philipp Meyer to Russell Banks, and if you've read my reviews for `The Sweet Hereafter' or `Affliction' then you know that I consider Russell Banks to be the greatest American writer of all time and so my appetite was wet and my expectations were high upon ripping into the first chapter of `American Rust'. What I found was not what I expected, and while I think this was a fine attempt and a great jump off point, Meyer, in my opinion, has some growing to do.

He's no Russell Banks.

The novel tells the story of Isaac English and Billy Poe, two very different young men who grew up together in a small southern town. Both have had very hard childhoods. Billy lived in a divided home his whole life and has sacrificed his future in order to take care of his mother. Isaac's mother committed suicide and his sister ran off to college so he was left taking care of his crippled father. Both boys are trapped in a town too small for them with dreams of escaping they can never get up the courage to realize.

Until Isaac decides he wants out.

The novel is broken down into six sections, and some sections work much better than others. The first section is brilliant and truly gives you a rich understanding of these two young men and the poor decision they made. The second section is also very well done, further developing not only the relationship between these two men but also with their scattered families. It's within the third section that the novel starts to fall apart for me.
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