Buell, Pa., may not have been the proudest imaginary town never put on a map, but at least it was working steadily once upon a time. Then the steel mills closed, and in that death, so died the surrounding community. As in many of America's gutted towns, the very young and the old stay, but "all the smart ones leave." Lee and Isaac English are two of the smart ones. Lee went to college at Yale and married rich, leaving her younger brother to take care of their father, Henry, disabled in a mill accident. Isaac has had enough of playing dutiful son to a distant dad and decides to go to California with $4,000 stolen from the old man's pension. On the way to catch a train hobo-style, he picks up an escort from his drunken buddy Billy Poe, a trailer-trash man-child former high school jock who sponges off his mother, Grace. When a storm breaks, they take shelter in an abandoned factory and get involved in a turf tussle with three bums, one of whom Isaac kills. It's arguably a case of self-defense, but Isaac and Poe flee the scene. Isaac stays around town long enough to get pissed off when Poe and a visiting Lee resume an affair from high school. Fed up with their carrying on, Isaac goes back to his original plan and plays like Roger Miller on a train to Detroit, leaving Poe to face the pokey when Police Chief Bud Harris investigates the bum's killing. Poe would have been incarcerated a long time ago over an earlier violent altercation that left a boy permanently damaged, but Harris, in an on-again off-again relationship with Grace, got him off the hook. Not this time. Poe's going away, and anyone who's seen a prison movie in the past 40 years knows what kinda shenanigans they get up to in there. Meanwhile, Isaac finds out in his own way what a crappy world it is out there, beaten, robbed and starving.
Meyer crawls right into the minds of his six main characters, riding their thoughtstreams for a chapter at a time, scarcely pausing to punctuate. These passages can blur together and get a bit repetitive. At some point, every person in the book stops to ruminate on ephemeral existence, inevitable mortality and the inconsequentiality of it all in a great, wide, uncaring universe. Poe may be the book's most fascinating character. This would be a much less interesting novel if it was the standard male-bonding, no-snitching tale. There's something more complex going on here. Poe's motivations could launch a thousand book club discussions. Why does he button up and take the rap for Isaac? As friends, they don't seem all that close, particularly considering that Isaac could just take off like he does, rarely giving a thought to what might be happening to Poe. So why would Poe sacrifice himself? A martyrdom complex? Guilt over the crime he wasn't punished for? A wrong-headed sense of purpose that he's finally doing something right after a life largely wasted? Middle-finger stubbornness? Or just plain ol' stupidity?
This kind of book could easily have turned into an Oprah-approved sob story like "House of Sand and Fog," in which no one was responsible for anything, everyone was a victim of bad luck and circumstance and nothing was anybody's fault. Not here. Every one of the characters in "Rust" has a choice. They have enough self-awareness to realize they're not totally victims of fortune and society, they've each played a part in their own predicament thru poor judgment, fear of change or pure self-destructive bloody-mindedness. Maybe it's twisted, maybe my attitude comes from quite a personal history of screw-ups, but I have slightly more respect for a person who can face his own messes even if he can't quit making them. "It was not some unfair twist of fate, he had not been born a refugee, it was his own choices, he could be a man about it. He could accept the consequences." This in no way lets off the hook the rampant sociopathy that passes for corporate management these days. "American Rust" brims with righteous anger at the CEOs getting rich making others poor. "You could not have a country, not this big, that didn't make things for itself. There would be ramifications eventually." Sooner, rather than later, I fear.
Against such a bleak backdrop, the book's quiet grace notes stand out more sharply. They're nothing dramatic. Just banal little acts of kindness people may perform when they think no one's looking. That undercover ordinariness makes such acts paradoxically special and gives glimmers of hope that it's not all swirling down the toilet as fast as we might think. Some might accuse "American Rust" of being miserabilist, but then some might accuse me of being miserabilist as well, so we got along just fine. In Philipp Meyer, we have a first-time novelist good enough to join Dennis Lehane and George Pelecanos on the border between crime fiction and the chronicles of America's (not) working class.