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That’s Philipp with three P’s, and don’t you forget it


Several months ago, I read Philipp Meyer’s much-acclaimed second novel, “The Son,” and loved it. I’m always intrigued by debut novels, though; what did the author write before there was any hype? So I went back and read Meyer’s first novel, “American Rust,” published in 2009.

“American Rust” tells the story of two young men: Isaac English and Billy Poe, who live in a Pennsylvania steel town that has hit hard times. Having spent the past few years caring for his disabled father, Isaac opens the novel by stealing four thousand bucks from his old man and heading, on foot, across the country toward Berkeley, California, where he hopes to study (lured in particular by the physics department and its famed Livermore Labs). This plan, outlandish as it may seem, is further nipped in the bud when an encounter with some vagrants goes awry, leaving Isaac and Poe with a dead body on their hands and a world that is closing in.

The novel is told by various characters in alternating chapters, and when it opens with Isaac, there is a brief sense of potential: that he may get out of Buell, despite the smallness of his world and the fact that he has never before been on his own. His opening narration, with its occasional snippets from the Bible and its focus on his name, reminded me of a larger and older story; Moby-Dick, perhaps, because Isaac, like Ishmael, is a young and innocent wanderer, an outcast. But it becomes evident early on that even Isaac is not going to get far, and that any revelations he’s going to have will take place very close to home.

There are also chapters told by Isaac’s older sister, Lee, an attractive and gifted girl who made it out for Buell four years before; she attended Yale and is headed for Harvard Law, has married a wealthy and foppish fellow student from Connecticut. She’s pretty much abandoned Isaac to take care of their ailing father these past four years, and one honest point of the book is that it does not really forgive her for this, despite her attempts to rationalize it.

Further chapters are told by Billy Poe’s mother, Grace, whose life has always been curtailed by the decisions of men, and her poor taste in them; and by the local police chief, Bud Harris, who wants to spare both Poe and his mother pain in part because he has been carrying on a relationship with Poe’s mother these past several years. More than that, though, he is a moral and empathetic man, and his decision will be the final one of the story, deciding the boys’ fates.

Philipp Meyer writes wonderful characters, and, like Jonathan Franzen, he’s not scared of voyeurism. It’s a riveting combination. In each character’s chapter I was all theirs, willing to absorb whatever they wanted to tell me. I have heard reviewers claim either that he writes believable female characters or lackluster ones; in this case I side with the former. My only real quibble is that the pacing of the novel is occasionally slow. It is as if these characters commit a murder in slow-motion and then are gradually pursued by the world’s slowest-moving crime-scene-sniffers. I found it hard to believe that the police chief could hide the murderer’s identity, even for a very short while, simply by sticking his jacket out of sight at the crime scene.

But the characters are very well wrought, and this is a gift Meyer carries into “The Son” with him (at which point he’s also got a masterful grasp of plot and pacing). The closing action of “American Rust,” too, is heartfelt and well done; though the results are satisfying, they are only so because the law has been broken, the rules have been bent yet again, but for once it’s on our side. Circumstances are not going to change, overall, in Buell, Pennsylvania, but this one small, somewhat illicit mercy has been granted. We feel okay with it — though the irony is not lost on Meyer or on us.


Buy “American Rust” and “The Son

Philipp Meyer on NPR