59 pages 1 hour read

Philipp Meyer

American Rust: A Novel

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2009

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Summary and Study Guide


Following in the literary footsteps of John Steinbeck and Cormac McCarthy, Philipp Meyer’s American Rust (2010) explores the catastrophic effects of economic devastation on the lives of six characters in Pennsylvania’s Mon Valley, once home to a thriving steel and coal industry (and a solid-middle class) but now populated by broken lives and shuttered businesses. The novel was a winner of the Los Angeles Times/Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction, a Washington Post Top Ten Book of the Year, and one of Newsweek’s “Best. Books. Ever.” American Rust was also made into a Showtime television series.

Plot Summary

Isaac English, desperate to escape both a dying town and the burden of caring for his injured father, steals $4,000 of his father’s pension and heads out of town, hoping to hop a freight train to California and enroll in college. He convinces his friend, former high school football star Billy Poe, to accompany him at least as far as the rail yard. On the way, they stop to rest at an abandoned machine shop where they encounter three itinerant, threatening men: Otto, Jesus, and Murray. When the men claim the shop is theirs, Isaac wants to leave, but Poe, feeling territorial, doesn’t want to be pushed around. Isaac steps outside, but when Poe doesn’t follow, Isaac goes back inside to see that Jesus has a knife to Poe’s throat and a hand down his pants. Murray lies unconscious, and Otto advances on Poe. Isaac hurls a heavy ball bearing at Otto, striking him in the face and killing him. Poe breaks loose, and they flee.

The next morning, they return to retrieve Isaac’s backpack and Poe’s letter jacket and to dispose of the body, but they find a police cruiser. Inside sits Police Chief Bud Harris, who was once romantically involved with Poe’s mother, Grace. He found the letter jacket earlier that day; though he doesn’t yet remark on it, he assumes Poe killed Otto. However, Harris has hidden the evidence to protect Poe, because he still has feelings for Grace. When the young men approach Harris, they play innocent and pretend they’re up to nothing in particular. Unconvinced, Harris says little and drives Isaac and Poe into town, telling them to call for a ride; Isaac calls his sister, Lee, who is visiting from Connecticut. After stopping for drinks, Lee drives them back to their house where she and Poe, a former high-school couple, make love. Isaac hears their lovemaking from his bedroom, and, angry and confused, he vows to leave the next day. That evening, Poe tells Lee the real story of the murder—that it was Isaac, not he, who killed Otto.

The following day, Isaac packs supplies and leaves, but he refuses to speak to his sister about what he heard the night before. Lee, recently married, still loves Poe. Their mutual passion overrides their common sense, even though both realize no future together is possible. The next day, Harris arrests Poe for murder and detains him in the town jail, but Poe refuses to incriminate Isaac. Despite Harris’s pleas for cooperation, Poe remains silent, and so, a few days later, Poe is transferred to the state prison in Fayetteville and charged with first-degree murder.

As Isaac makes his way across a desolate landscape, he eventually meets “the Baron,” an older, itinerant man who takes Isaac under his wing and teaches him trainhopping. Together, they board a westward freight train, but Isaac is careful to keep his distance. After several days and nights riding the coal cars, they get off somewhere in Michigan. Isaac is suspicious of the Baron—especially since Isaac has the $4,000 cash in his pocket—but he has little choice other than to rely on the man’s expertise.

Meanwhile, Grace Poe, desperate to exonerate her son, falls back on the only tactic she knows—seducing Bud Harris and hoping he can pull some strings and free Poe. Harris sees past Grace’s ploy and doesn’t take the bait, but he can’t blame her for trying to save her son; and he still loves her.

Poe gets into a fight on his first day at Fayetteville, making enemies of the “DC Black” gang and earning the protection of a gang of white supremacists. The protection, however, is contingent on Poe doing them a “favor.” They call in that favor one day when they ask Poe to beat a prison guard. He is ambivalent, not wanting to jeopardize his chances at trial, but one of the gang leaders, Clovis, makes it clear that this is not a request; it’s an order. Later, Poe beats up his cellmate and is locked in solitary confinement, but this is only a temporary reprieve. When Poe is released a few days later, Clovis and his “lieutenants” are waiting. They beat and stab him nearly to death.

For her part, Lee calls in a favor of her own. She uses her in-laws’ formidable financial resources to hire a lawyer for Isaac. Chief Harris, who has his own history of bending the law for personal reasons, does so once more—for Grace. He learns the address of Murray, the primary witness against Poe. He drives to Murray’s house and orders him to leave town. When the confrontation turns physical, however, Harris shoots both the witness and another man in the house, thus eliminating the evidence against Poe.

Isaac is faring no better. When the Baron robs him of his cash, his only choice is to head back home and own up to his crime. Hitching rides, he slowly makes his way back to Buell, where he walks into the police station and confesses. Harris tells him that the witness for the prosecution is dead, that Poe (in the hospital but alive) will be released soon, and that Isaac should keep quiet and accept his good fortune. Isaac does what he’s long resisted doing, leaving the Mon Valley to join his sister in Connecticut.

Several months later, having moved away (on Harris’s advice), Poe and Grace revisit their old property and find the trailer burned to the ground.