Philipp Meyer

American Rust

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American Rust Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature  detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics. This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of American Rust by Philipp Meyer.

Written in the stream-of-consciousness style reminiscent of Faulkner and Virginia Woolf, Philipp Meyer’s 2009 novel American Rust made many “best books of the year” lists when it was published. Set in a crumbling and dilapidated Pennsylvania town where an absence of jobs means an absence of optimism, American Rust tells the story of what happens to a young man with a promising future when he grows up in an environment of defeat and when there are no resources to support his potential. Although the novel’s characters and setting could easily turn to cliché and another writer’s hands, Meyer is able to create immense psychological depth in his characters without ever condescending to them or presenting them to his reader as cautionary tales.

The novel is set in the fictional town of Buell, Pennsylvania, a town that has gone into steep decline after the collapse of the steel industry. Our protagonist is Isaac English, a 19-year-old high school graduate who has the intellectual capacity for pursuing a college degree and thus being able to leave his hometown for good. In his quick sketch, the town is a place where half the people are on welfare, teenagers with ambitions cook meth, and the only place to find a job is Walmart.

Isaac’s best friend is Billy Poe, a slightly older former high school football star. Billy is not nearly as academically inclined as Isaac, but his athletic prowess did at one point get him the possibility of a scholarship to Colgate University – a chance Billy turned down because he simply could not imagine himself being a college student.

As the novel opens, Isaac has been inspired by his reading of Jack Kerouac to escape to California. After stealing $4,000 from his disabled father, Henry, Isaac plans to hop a freight train to Berkeley, where he wants study physics. With Billy along for company, the two young men make it a few miles out of Buell when they are accosted by three homeless men squatting in an abandoned factory. The altercation quickly turns violent, as one of the men (Jesus) stabs Billy and then sexually assaults him. To intervene, Isaac throws a ball bearing at the head of another man (Otto), who is immediately killed by the blunt-force trauma. Jesus and the third man, Murray, run away in fear.

Isaac and Billy are terrified of what they have done and in their panic to escape the scene, both leave behind identifying items: Billy’s football letter jacket and Isaac’s pack. Convinced that to the police, Otto’s death will seem like murder rather than self-defense, the young men try desperately to figure out how they will evade arrest.

We now learn about the other people in Isaac and Billy’s lives.

Billy has spent his life dealing with the neglect and absence of his father Virgil. To cope with her miserable marriage to Virgil, Billy’s mother Grace has had a long-term affair with Bud Harris, the town’s police chief – the person who is tasked with solving what happened in the abandoned factory and figuring out who killed Otto. Bud has been enmeshed in the lives of the Poes for a long time, and because of his love for Grace has been willing to bend the rules for Billy quite a bit. Bud has already once helped Billy avoid criminal charges after Billy beat another boy almost to death when he was a teenager. Now, when Bud realizes that the football jacket at the scene belongs to Billy, he hides this evidence from the police investigation.

Meanwhile, Isaac is resentful of his older sister, Lee, who was able to escape her probable fate in the town by getting into Yale University. Although she felt socioeconomically insecure while going to school there, she was able to meet and marry the well-to-do Simon, and the couple now lives in Connecticut. Because Lee was able to leave, Isaac has had to care for Henry, who became disabled after a fire in the steel mill where he worked.

With his mind slowly unraveling, Isaac takes the stolen $4,000 and runs away westward. His journey is confusing, dangerous, and physically taxing – he faces hostile weather, other disaffected homeless people, and slowly begins to starve as he runs out of resources. While Isaac is gone, Lee comes back to Buell to take care of her father, and she ends up having an affair with Billy, who was her high school boyfriend.

On the strength of Murray’s testimony, Billy is charged with Otto’s murder. Billy is sent to prison to await trial, and there violence and danger stocks him at every turn. Billy gets on the wrong side of many prison groups: he beats up a black man, angering the African-American population; he doesn’t cooperate with the white supremacists; and he even gets into a fight with his cellmate. All of this gets Billy put into solitary confinement, which he experiences as harrowing psychological torment. Nevertheless, when he is threatened with a return to the general population where he will no doubt be stabbed to death, Billy still refuses to divulge Isaac’s role in Otto’s death. Released from solitary, Billy is stabbed nearly to death, and ends up paralyzed in the hospital.

Wanting to spare Grace the trauma of watching her son go through this, Bud kills Murray. Without a witness, Billy cannot be convicted, but it is clear that Bud himself will soon have to pay for his own actions.

At the same time, worried that he is a growing burden on his family, Henry commits suicide. When Isaac finally returns to Buell from his harrowing ordeal, he confesses his role in the murder to Bud. Bud tells him to be quiet about this, and to move away from town as soon as possible.