American Rust by Philipp Meyer

Billy Poe and Isaac English are two unlikely friends, one the town’s former high school football star and the other the town whiz whiz kid- extremely intelligent but socially awkward.  They have grown up in the small manufacturing town of Buell, Pennyslvania. Neither has had an ideal upbringing. Poe’s mother has struggled with her on and off again relationship with Poe’s alcoholic father and the town’s Chief of Police, Bud Harris, and Harris for his part has always shielded Poe as he has landed in trouble over the years. Isaac has been raised by a cold  and emotionally distant father after the death of his mother, and the desertion of his sister- first for college and then marriage into a well-to-do family.

Isaac decides that he has had enough of the dying community  and plans on hitchhiking to California to establish residency for a year. The money that he has stolen from his father upon leaving will be enough to give him a start, and he hopes to begin college the following year. It’s when he stops to say goodbye to his friend Poe, with the hopes of persuading him to go along, that things begin to go awry. Each choice Poe and Isaac make, together and separately, leads to consequences for both young men and their families that neither of them could fully imagine.

Meyer’s debut novel is peopled with characters both complex and deeply in tune with who they are, their flaws and capabilities, and their place  in their world, even as they struggle against their circumstances and question the inevitability of their situations. The alternating view points of the narrative comprising the story serve not only to add to the suspense as it unfolds but also presents a rich psychological portrait of each of them.

One of the things that I really enjoy when reading a book is to be engaged with the characters, and  I definitely found that to be the case here.  This novel was as absorbing as a soap opera.  Poe, Isaac, Harris, and Grace were so intricate and well-drawn, and I loved the fact that I had picked sides and had certain expectations of what the characters might do, but had to wait to see if they would follow along with what I thought.  There were several different connections that each of them had to each other and it was fascinating to discover them, and see which bonds would prove to be the strongest, and hold the most sway over their decisions.  It was fascinating to observe which side I had picked and why,  as I watched them grapple with their reasoning and decisions. I compared my thoughts and reactions to their logic as I went along. The characters voices were clear and immediately identifiable within the loosely stream of consciousness style.

Meyer has written a wonderful novel his first time out with very prescient exploration of dying small towns suffering from immense economic losses, coupled with his explorations of friendship, love , loss and betrayal. This novel is not to be missed.

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