Times are hard in Buell, Pa. It had been a thriving steel mill town but deindustrialization has set in with a vengeance. Throughout the entire region, factories are closed, workers search in vain for viable employment, families are devastated and those who don't up and leave are left dazed and discouraged. Once "the center of steel production in the country, in the entire world," the whole area is now so pulverized by economic decline many towns cannot afford to provide basic services, even police.
"The coal was the reason for steel ... it wasn't just steel, there were dozens of smaller industries that supported the mills and were supported by them: tool and die, specialty coating, mining equipment, the list went on. It had been an intricate system and when the mills shut down, the entire Valley had collapsed. Steel had been the heart."
"American Rust" is Philipp Meyer's first novel, and what a riveting and wrenching story he tells. Throughout, he is relentless in his graphic depictions of industrial decrepitude and social decay. Multifarious buildings that once housed thriving businesses and enabled hard-working folk to earn a livable wage are fading and falling into themselves as wild flora and animals reclaim much of the landscape.
One resident "remembered when the whistle blew and shift-change clogged the streets with men, their wives, other workers, even twenty years earlier there had been so much life in Buell it was inconceivable, it was impossible to wrap your head around the idea that a place could be destroyed so quickly."
It's not just industrial plants that lie in desuetude. Formerly bustling business districts, their stores, restaurants and shops are fallow, windswept corridors of quiet. Homes are simply left empty and untended. One house "had been empty twelve years, even the For Sale sign had faded and rotted away. The state had built a brand-new highway running north to Pittsburgh but there were never any cars on it, it was hard to imagine that in any other place, an enormous highway that no one used, the central artery, empty."
Isaac English has decided he must get out. His older sister made it to Yale and is now married to a son of wealth. Isaac is exceptionally intelligent; he may even be a genius. He dreams of a career in astrophysics. But after his sister's departure and his mother's tragic suicide, Isaac is left to care for his disabled father, a steel worker who suffered a horrific injury on the job. Unable to further endure the stifling atmosphere of his dreary home and town, Isaac precipitously takes off with a hefty wad of cash, money from his father's pension that had been accumulating in the house. The diminutive Isaac invites his friend Billy Poe, a rugged high school football star now directionless and unemployed, to join him on a trek to California. Poe declines the offer but decides to walk a ways with Isaac.
"From a distance, from the size of them, they might have been father and son. Poe with his big jaw and his small eyes and even now, two years out of school, a nylon football jacket, his name and player number on the front and BUELL EAGLES on the back. Isaac short and skinny, his eyes too large for his face, his clothes too large for him as well, his old backpack stuffed with his sleeping bag, a change of clothes, his notebooks."
They have not gone far when it's evening and rain forces them to seek shelter in a vine-enshrouded boarded-up machine shop. "There were empty bottles of fortified wine scattered everywhere, more beer cans. An old woodstove and signs of recent fires." Soon Billy and Isaac are joined by three homeless men. What transpires is unplanned, violent. A man is killed. Soon Billy winds up in the claustral*, penal labyrinth simmering with palpable tensions of race, gang allegiance and systemic brutality.
This novel weaves in and out of the lives of Isaac, Billy, members of their respective families and Buell's chief of police Bud Harris. Harris proves to be a most interesting character: a Vietnam vet, a lonely and thoughtful cop who is sympathetic to the rough-edged people he serves. From the start, his relationship with Billy's mother and his ongoing concern for her impetuous son threatens to compromise his involvement in the murder investigation.
Harris is not indifferent to the pounding economic hardship that has overwhelmed so many locals: "He didn't see how the country could survive like this in the long run; a stable society required stable jobs, there wasn't anything more to it than that. The police could not fix those problems."
Meyer has painted a blistering fictional portrait of the desperation and economic dislocation that is afflicting many lives in this nation today, an unsettling tale written with great artistry and sensitivity.