There are places in this country that have been permanently changed by the recession - not the current one, or the tech-bubble one, but the one from about thirty years ago. That was when the heavy manufacturing that had been the source of American economic strength for so long began to crumble. Jobs left, and didn't come back; and to find jobs and make new lives, many people found that they had to leave too. But others stayed - sometimes by their own choice, sometimes because they felt they had no other choice. The story Philipp Meyer tells in American Rust concerns all of them.
Lee English got out of Buell, Pennsylvania on a scholarship to Yale, and sealed a new place for herself by marrying a trust-fund baby. Her brilliant younger brother, Isaac, set aside his own academic ambitions to stay with their disabled father, until his feelings of frustration and under-appreciation fueled him to steal some cash from his dad and slip away, planning to hop trains until he made it to Berkeley, California. Isaac's unlikely best friend, Billy Poe, had blown off the opportunity to play college football and didn't seem interested in going anywhere, but Isaac decided to try to convince him to tag along anyway. An unexpected encounter on their way out of town sends Isaac off on his own, makes Billy's prospects cloudier than ever, and brings Lee back home.
Using these three characters as narrators, as well as Billy's mother Grace and police chief Bud Harris, Meyer covers a brief but eventful period in their lives, but he also takes a deeper look at the conditions that surround and affect them. He vividly evokes a sense of place - a place that keeps a hold on its people through their collective past, despite the fact that it no longer has much in the way of a future to offer them.
American Rust is Phillip Meyer's first novel, and it's an ambitious one. At times, I felt that he may have tried to pack too much into it, and I grew a bit frustrated with that later in the book, but for the most part, I think he did it effectively and well. The story didn't grab me from the first page, but it did pull me in before too long, and then I found myself wrapped up in it. I usually like stories told from multiple perspectives, and I thought Meyer made each character's voice unique - although I did have to get used to the stream-of-consciousness style he used in writing their inner monologues, which didn't always clearly set them off from the third-person narration he employed for the story as a whole. I would have liked to see a couple of the characters developed more (and perhaps less of others), but a reader's interests don't always dovetail perfectly with the writer's, and I usually feel that when I'm engaged enough to care about that aspect of the novel, the writer is doing a good job. The mood of the novel is fairly - and appropriately - bleak, but the writing is evocative.
This isn't a feel-good novel, but American Rust is a thought-provoking and memorable story, and I'll be interested in seeing what its author does next.