Philipp Meyer made his name known in the literary world with the release of his 2013 epic The Son, which is now an AMC TV show. The Son received critical acclaim and was the runner-up for the Pulitzer Prize.
But that’s not what I’m here to write about, because there is another book by Meyer, his first book, the one before The Son, that is similarly exceptional: American Rust.
First published at the start of 2009, the novel seemed to be ahead of its time in dissecting and interrogating the downtrodden society in many industrial areas of the Midwest.
At its core, American Rust tells the story of several characters in the crumbling fictional steel town of Buell, Pennsylvania, in the aftermath of the declining manufacturing industry in the United States. There was something more to it, though. It created an empathy for the characters, as if you were reading a nonfiction book about what used to make America so great. It was heartbreaking and at the same time mesmerizing.
Using a stream-of-consciousness style, Meyer introduces us to Isaac English, a quiet and small intellectual, and his best friend Billy Poe, a former football star at the local high school, as they face the reality of life in the aftermath of prosperity.
Isaac is the son of a former steelworker. At the inception of the novel, Isaac steals $4,000 from his old man — money initially received from a work-related injury that left him crippled — and takes off to run away to California. En route, he meets Poe and the two of them wander toward the railroad. Before long, they are caught in a rainstorm and decide to wait it out in an abandoned building. That’s where they encounter a ring of drifters. A short confrontation later, one of the men is dead — killed, accidentally, by Isaac while attempting to rescue Poe from an attack by the men.
That all happens in the first chapter. From there, the novel takes off, introducing us to Isaac’s successful Ivy League sister, Poe’s single and depressing mother, and the town’s middle-aged sheriff — all battling their own inner demons while attempting to traverse a difficult and failing economy.
Meyer is from an industrial city himself, growing up in a blue-collar neighborhood in Baltimore. When embarking on this book, he wanted to tell the story of the types of people he grew up around — the hard-working, blue-collar faction of society that used to make up the backbone of America’s middle class, who now saw jobs rapidly disappearing and livelihoods disintegrating.
Maybe the most telling line from the whole book, uttered by Poe, goes like this: “You ought to be able to grow up in a place and not have to get the hell out of it when you turn eighteen.”
That’s the way life works in these parts of the country. People grow up and begin to understand that the only method of advancement is to leave — and when they do, rarely do they return.
See, Meyer didn’t set out to write a book using fictitious liberties. He went to western Pennsylvania. He spoke with the people. He saw the devastation with his own eyes. What came of it was a fast-paced, creative, insightful and intelligent novel, one in which emotion and brutal truth are intertwined page after page.
Is The Son considered Meyer’s masterpiece, at least thus far in his career? Probably. But is American Rust a must-read, important novel? You better believe it.