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A Novel

Written by Philipp MeyerAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Philipp Meyer

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On Sale: February 24, 2009
Pages: | ISBN: 978-0-385-52968-6
Published by : Spiegel & Grau Random House Group
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

The debut novel from the New York Times bestselling author of The Son

Set in a beautiful but economically devastated Pennsylvania steel town, American Rust is a novel of the lost American dream and the desperation—as well as the acts of friendship, loyalty, and love—that arise from its loss. From local bars to trainyards to prison, it is the story of two young men, bound to the town by family, responsibility, inertia, and the beauty around them, who dream of a future beyond the factories and abandoned homes.

Left alone to care for his aging father after his mother commits suicide and his sister escapes to Yale, Isaac English longs for a life beyond his hometown. But when he finally sets out to leave for good, accompanied by his temperamental best friend, former high school football star Billy Poe, they are caught up in a terrible act of violence that changes their lives forever.

Evoking John Steinbeck’s novels of restless lives during the Great Depression, American Rust takes us into the contemporary American heartland at a moment of profound unrest and uncertainty about the future. It is a dark but lucid vision, a moving novel about the bleak realities that battle our desire for transcendence and the power of love and friendship to redeem us.

Newsweek's list of "Best. Books. Ever"
A Washington Post Top Ten Book of 2009
A New York Times Notable Book of 2009
An Economist Best Book of 2009
A Kansas City Star Top 100 book of 2009
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Best Books of 2009
Idaho Statesman's Best Books of 2009

Excerpt

Book One
1.

Isaac's mother was dead five years but he hadn't stopped thinking about her. He lived alone in the house with the old man, twenty, small for his age, easily mistaken for a boy. Late morning and he walked quickly through the woods toward town--a small thin figure with a backpack, trying hard to keep out of sight. He'd taken four thousand dollars from the old man's desk; Stolen, he corrected himself. The nuthouse prisonbreak. Anyone sees you and it's Silas get the dogs.
Soon he reached the overlook: green rolling hills, a muddy winding river, an expanse of forest unbroken except for the town of Buell and its steelmill. The mill itself had been like a small city, but they had closed it in 1987, partially dismantled it ten years later; it now stood like an ancient ruin, its buildings grown over with bittersweet vine, devil's tear thumb, and tree of heaven. The footprints of deer and coyotes crisscrossed the grounds; there was only the occasional human squatter.
Still, it was a quaint town: neat rows of white houses wrapping the hillside, church steeples and cobblestone streets, the tall silver domes of an Orthodox cathedral. A place that had recently been well-off, its downtown full of historic stone buildings, mostly boarded now. On certain blocks there was still a pretense of keeping the trash picked up, but others had been abandoned completely. Buell, Fayette County, Pennsylvania. Fayette-nam, as it was often called.
Isaac walked the railroad tracks to avoid being seen, though there weren't many people out anyway. He could remember the streets at shiftchange, the traffic stopped, the flood of men emerging from the billet mill coated with steeldust and flickering in the sunlight; his father, tall and shimmering, reaching down to lift him. That was before the accident. Before he became the old man.
It was forty miles to Pittsburgh and the best way was to follow the tracks along the river--it was easy to jump a coal train and ride as long as you wanted. Once he made the city, he'd jump another train to California. He'd been planning this for a month. A long time overdue. Think Poe will come along? Probably not.

On the river he watched barges and a towboat pass, engines droning. It was pushing coal. Once the boat was gone the air got quiet and the water was slow and muddy and the forests ran down to the edge and it could have been anywhere, the Amazon, a picture from National Geographic. A bluegill jumped in the shallows--you weren't supposed to eat the fish but everyone did. Mercury and PCB. He couldn't remember what the letters stood for but it was poison.
In school he'd tutored Poe in math, though even now he wasn't sure why Poe was friends with him--Isaac English and his older sister were the two smartest kids in town, the whole Valley, probably; the sister had gone to Yale. A rising tide, Isaac had hoped, that might lift him as well. He'd looked up to his sister most of his life, but she had found a new place, had a husband in Connecticut that neither Isaac nor his father had met. You're doing fine alone, he thought. The kid needs to be less bitter. Soon he'll hit California--easy winters and the warmth of his own desert. A year to get residency and apply to school: astrophysics. Lawrence Livermore. Keck Observatory and the Very Large Array. Listen to yourself--does any of that still make sense?
Outside the town it got rural again and he decided to walk the trails to Poe's house instead of taking the road. He climbed steadily along. He knew the woods as well as an old poacher, kept notebooks of drawings he'd made of birds and other animals, though mostly it was birds. Half the weight of his pack was notebooks. He liked being outside. He wondered if that was because there were no people, but he hoped not. It was lucky growing up in a place like this because in a city, he didn't know, his mind was like a train where you couldn't control the speed. Give it a track and direction or it cracks up. The human condition put names to everything: bloodroot rockflower whip-poor-will, tulip bitternut hackberry. Shagbark and pin oak. Locust and king_nut. Plenty to keep your mind busy.
Meanwhile, right over your head, a thin blue sky, see clear to outer space: the last great mystery. Same distance to Pittsburgh--couple miles of air and then four hundred below zero, a fragile blanket. Pure luck. Odds are you shouldn't be alive--think about that, Watson. Can't say it in public or they'll put you in a straitjacket.

Except eventually the luck runs out--your sun turns into a red giant and the earth is burned whole. Giveth and taketh away. The entire human race would have to move before that happened and only the physicists could figure out how, they were the ones who would save people. Of course by then he'd be long dead. But at least he'd have made his contribution. Being dead didn't excuse your responsibility to the ones still alive. If there was anything he was sure of, it was that.


Poe lived at the top of a dirt road in a doublewide trailer that sat, like many houses outside town, on a large tract of woodland. Eighty acres, in this case, a frontier sort of feeling, a feeling of being the last man on earth, protected by all the green hills and hollows.
There was a muddy four-wheeler sitting in the yard near Poe's old Camaro, its three-thousand-dollar paintjob and blown transmission. Metal sheds in various states of collapse, a Number 3 Dale Earnhardt flag pinned across one of them, a wooden game pole for hanging deer. Poe was sitting at the top of the hill, looking out toward the river from his folding chair. If you could find a way to pay your mortgage, people always said, it was like living on God's back acre.
The whole town thought Poe would go to college to keep playing ball, not exactly Big Ten material but good enough for somewhere, only two years later here he was, living in his mother's trailer, sitting in the yard and looking like he intended to cut firewood. This week or maybe next. A year older than Isaac, his glory days already past, a dozen empty beer cans at his feet. He was tall and broad and squareheaded and at two hundred forty pounds, more than twice the size of Isaac. When he saw him, Poe said:

"Getting rid of you for good, huh?"
"Hide your tears," Isaac told him. He looked around. "Where's your bag?" It was a relief to see Poe, a distraction from the stolen money in his pocket.
Poe grinned and sipped his beer. He hadn't showered in days--he'd been laid off when the town hardware store cut its hours and was putting off applying to Wal-Mart as long as possible.
"As far as coming along, you know I've got all this stuff to take care of." He waved his arm generally at the rolling hills and woods in the distance. "No time for your little caper."
"You really are a coward, aren't you?"
"Christ, Mental, you can't seriously want me to come with you."
"I don't care either way," Isaac told him.
"Looking at it from my own selfish point of view, I'm still on goddamn probation. I'm better off robbing gas stations."
"Sure you are."
"You ain't gonna make me feel guilty. Drink a beer and sit down a minute."
"I don't have time," said Isaac.
Poe glanced around the yard in exasperation, but finally he stood up. He finished the rest of his drink and crumpled the can. "Alright," he said. "I'll ride with you up to the Conrail yard in the city. But after that, you're on your own."


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 went down the narrow dirt road toward the river, mostly it was woods and meadows, green and beautiful in the first weeks of spring. They passed an old house that had tipped face-first into a sinkhole--the ground in the Mid-Mon Valley was riddled with old coal mines, some properly stabilized, others not. Isaac winged a rock and knocked a ventstack off the roof. He'd always had a good arm, better than Poe's even, though of course Poe would never admit it.

Just before the river they came to the Cultrap farm with its cows sitting in the sun, heard a pig squeal for a long time in one of the outbuildings.

"Wish I hadn't heard that."
"Shit," said Poe. "Cultrap makes the best bacon around."
"It's still something dying."
"Maybe you should stop analyzing it."
"You know they use pig hearts to fix human hearts. The valves are basically the same."
"I'm gonna miss your factoids."
"Sure you will."
"I was exaggerating," said Poe. "I was being ironic."
They continued to walk.
"You know I would seriously owe you if you came with."
"Me and Jack Kerouac Junior. Who stole four grand from his old man and doesn't even know where the money came from."
"He's a cheap bastard with a steelworker's pension. He's got plenty of money now that he's not sending it all to my sister."
"Who probably needed it."
"Who graduated from Yale with about ten scholarships while I stayed back and looked after Little Hitler."
Poe sighed. "Poor angry Isaac."
"Who wouldn't be?"
"Well to share some wisdom from my own father, wherever you go, you still wake up and see the same face in the mirror."
"Words to live by."
"The old man's been around some."
"You're right about that."
"Come on now, Mental."

They turned north along the river, toward Pittsburgh; to the south it was state forest and coal mines. The coal was the reason for steel. They passed another old plant and its smokestack, 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. He wondered how long it would be before it all rusted away to nothing and the Valley returned to a primitive state. Only the stone would last.

For a hundred years the Valley had been the center of steel production in the country, in the entire world, technically, but in the time since Poe and Isaac were born, the area had lost 150,000 jobs--most of the towns could no longer afford basic services; many no longer had any police. As Isaac had overheard his sister tell someone from college: half the people went on welfare and the other half went back to hunting and gathering. Which was an exaggeration, but not by much.
There was no sign of any train and Poe was walking a step ahead, there was only the sound of the wind coming off the river and the gravel crunching under their feet. Isaac hoped for a long one, which all the bends in the river would keep slow. The shorter trains ran a lot faster; it was dangerous to try to catch them.

He looked out over the river, the muddiness of it, the things buried underneath. Different layers and all kinds of old crap buried in the muck, tractor parts and dinosaur bones. You aren't at the bottom but you aren't exactly at the surface, either. You are having a hard time seeing things. Hence the February swim. Hence the ripping off the old man. Feels like days since you've been home but it has probably only been two or three hours; you can still go back. No. Plenty of things worse than stealing, lying to yourself for example, your sister and the old man being champions in that. Acting like the last living souls.

Whereas you yourself take after your mother. Stick around and you're bound for the nuthouse. Embalming table. Stroll on the ice in February, the cold like being shocked. So cold you could barely breathe but you stayed until it stopped hurting, that was how she slipped in. Take it for a minute and you start to go warm. A life lesson. You would not have risen until now--April--the river gets warmer and the things that live inside you, quietly without you knowing it, it is them that make you rise. The teacher taught you that. Dead deer in winter look like bones, though in summer they swell their skins. Bacteria. Cold keeps them down but they get you in the end.
You're doing fine, he thought. Snap out of it.

But of course he could remember Poe dragging him out of the water, telling Poe I wanted to see what it felt like is all. Simple experiment. Then he was under the trees, it was dark and he was running, mud-covered, crashing through deadfall and fernbeds, there was a rushing in his ears and he came out in someone's field. Dead leaves crackling; he'd been cold so long he no longer felt cold at all. He knew he was at the end. But Poe had caught up to him again.

"Sorry what I said about your dad," he told Poe now.
"I don't give a shit," said Poe.
"We gonna keep walking like this?"
"Like what?"
"Not talking."
"Maybe I'm just being sad."
"Maybe you need to man up a little." Isaac grinned but Poe stayed serious.
"Some of us have their whole lives ahead of them. Others--"
"You can do whatever you want."
"Lay off it," said Poe.
Isaac let him walk ahead. The wind was picking up and snapping their clothes.
"You good to keep going if this storm comes in?"
"Not really," said Poe.
"There's an old plant up there once we get out of these woods. We can find a place to wait it out in there."


From the Hardcover edition.
Philipp Meyer|Author Q&A

About Philipp Meyer

Philipp Meyer - American Rust
Philipp Meyer grew up in Baltimore, dropped out of high school, and got his GED when he was sixteen. After spending several years volunteering at a trauma center in downtown Baltimore, he attended Cornell University, where he studied English. Since graduating, Meyer has worked as a derivatives trader at UBS, a construction worker, and an EMT, among other jobs. His writing has been published in McSweeney's, The Iowa Review, Salon.com, and New Stories from the South. From 2005 to 2008 Meyer was a fellow at the Michener Center for Writers in Austin, Texas. He splits his time between Texas and upstate New York.

Author Q&A

A Conversation with Philipp Meyer



 Random House Reader’s Circle (RHRC): You’ve had quite a long and complicated journey to become an author—from high school dropout to Ivy League graduate to Wall Street trader, then construction worker and EMT. How did these experiences inform your writing?

 Philipp Meyer (PM): Growing up in Baltimore, in a working-class part of the city called Hampden, was probably the most obvious influence. Like Buell, Baltimore was once a stable, middle-class place, but when the steel and other manufacturing jobs began to leave the city, Baltimore went into a steep decline. The neighborhood where I grew up was symptomatic of that—while it was supportive in many ways, there was also a good deal of violence. It was rarely random, but it was ever present. We lived five doors up from a seedy bar and there were always these spectacular brawls spilling out onto the street; there were always cop cars and ambulances. When I was eleven or twelve a guy kicked down our front door, but ran when he heard my mom running to get the shotgun. 

Those early experiences, combined with my work as an EMT and the years I volunteered in a trauma center in Baltimore, probably had a lot to do with my fascination with what exactly makes us human. What is the intersection between our human consciousness, our morality, and our animal impulses? What are we at our core—good, evil, or something in between? Clearly, humans have the capability for enormous self-sacrifice, for love and honor. And of course we have the capability for darker things as well. 

RHRC: So how exactly did you go from high school dropout to Cornell graduate? 

PM: When I was about fifteen I decided I was done with formal education— I didn’t see a future in it. I didn’t see myself going to college. I thought I could learn more on my own. So I dropped out of high school and spent about five years working as a bike mechanic and two years volunteering in a trauma center in downtown Baltimore—the sort of hospital you go to if you’ve been shot or stabbed. 

By the time I was twenty I was getting restless. I wasn’t learning anything new. The idea of sitting down in a class and having someone teach me stuff—that seemed like about the most luxurious thing I could think of. I realized I needed to go to college. Obviously this made my parents pretty happy. 

I’d heard from various people that the Ivy League schools were the best place to get an education, so I started applying. The admissions of - ficer at Johns Hopkins actually laughed at me when I told him I was applying there—they didn’t take people with GEDs. So I began taking classes at a small Jesuit college in Baltimore, but kept applying to the big universities. On my third go-round, Cornell decided to take a chance on me. 

I started writing my first year of college and at Cornell I started a novel, but I knew I was a long way from being good enough to make a living as a writer. After graduation I took a job that paid well and would give me the freedom to write more. Or so I thought. 

RHRC: This is the job on Wall Street, where you were a derivatives trader. Why did you leave? 

PM: After a few years I realized I didn’t care about money. I cared about writing and I also felt I was getting disconnected from normal life. Further, I was beginning to wonder if I was morally okay with my role in the economy—after growing up in a city that had been decimated by job loss, I was part of the financial system that closed factories in Pennsylvania and Alabama and moved them to third-world countries. Naturally, when you work on Wall Street, your bosses tell you that it’s actually better for the economy to move all those jobs to other countries, but I was beginning to have my doubts. 

When I left the bank, I was a little optimistic about how long it would take me to become a published author. I guessed it would be a year or two, but actually it was about eight years. I ran out of money and realized that my apprentice novel (the one before American Rust) was not good enough to be published, that I needed another job. My instincts told me that going back to Wall Street was going to kill my writing—I somehow needed to have a different relationship with the world. I moved back to the old neighborhood, back to my parents’ basement, and took jobs in construction and as an EMT. That gave me a good balance— on one hand, I was writing a lot, and on the other, having a more positive relationship with the world. I was building things, helping people, and getting a little adrenaline on top of it. I’ve always been a very physical person—I have no idea where it comes from, but there’s a primitive side of me, and unless I keep it satisfied it’ll drive me a little crazy. These days I’m a volunteer firefighter and I also spend a lot of time in the woods just getting lost and figuring out how to get out again. 

RHRC: You grew up in Baltimore and have also lived in rural New York State, New York City, Boston, and Texas. What drew you to write about a dying steel town in western Pennsylvania? As opposed to, say, Baltimore? 

PM: There are several reasons. The first is that while Baltimore, like the rest of the formerly industrial Northeast, has been hit hard by the disappearance of manufacturing jobs, it has a much more complicated story than the Monongahela Valley. In Baltimore the decline began earlier, and there were many different industries that began to go under at similar, but not exactly the same, times—textiles, steel, shipbuilding—and there were also a myriad of small factories and shops, light and medium manufacturing, that began to go under as well. And then the docks and port became more and more automated, which cost further jobs. The southwestern Pennsylvania area, on the other hand, was devastated by the collapse of a single industry (steel), during a time period most people agree on (the mid-seventies to the mid-eighties being the most intense periods of job loss), though, of course, the fallout continues even now—the steel mill at Allenport, which was open at the time that Isaac walked by it in the novel, was just shuttered a few months ago. 

Another big reason I didn’t write about Baltimore is that I find it much easier to write about places I’m not from. Writing well is all about nailing those precise two or four details that describe a place or an emotion and transmit that feeling to the reader. The places I’m most comfortable and familiar with I tend not to observe as closely as other places. Some deep-seated animal instinct, I imagine—you get comfortable, you feel safe, you stop observing. Or at least you stop observing consciously. Whereas when you go someplace new, someplace unfamiliar, you tend to notice everything. Also, I had some connection to southwest Pennsylvania—my brother lives in Pittsburgh and one of my best friends grew up in Charleroi, which is about eight miles north of the imaginary town of Buell. 

RHRC: American Rust is told from the points of view of six people. What was your reason for writing it this way? 

PM: We rarely get the truth about an event if we get just a single version of it, though of course we often forget that. I read somewhere that every person thinks of himself as the star of his own movie. Which I think is true, but of course when you look at humanity more broadly, even though we think of ourselves as these independent entities, our lives are really completely interwoven with the lives of other people—complete strangers, often. The decisions and courses of action we decide on alone often have a profound effect on others, and vice versa. Throughout American Rust, the only person with a full understanding of the events taking place is the reader. The characters in the book never get the full picture until the important events have already taken place. Of course, life is often like that as well. 

RHRC:Were any of the characters easier or harder to write? 

PM: They were all equally hard. There are some fiction writers who take a lot from real life, base their characters on real people, but, for whatever reason, I can’t work that way. I have to make everything up. I have to find something I have in common with a character and use that as a thread to get myself inside them. As Eudora Welty said, you really have to inhabit the skins of the people you write about, whether they’re good or bad, saints or mass murderers. And you’re not just channeling them, you’re inventing their lives, their choices. It can be quite a strange feeling. 

RHRC: Why the stream-of-consciousness style? 

PM: I think one of the most important things about literature is its ability to show the inner workings of a person’s mind. It’s the only art form that really does that well. Music, visual art, film—those forms do other things well, but only literature can take you on a prolonged journey through another person’s consciousness. 

In American Rust I wanted to give a sense of how different minds work. Take the examples of Isaac and Poe, for instance: Isaac has a very linear thought process—he has an ability to confront problems directly, to go from A to B to C. He prides himself on his self-honesty. He understands that he is physically weak and gets afraid quite easily, so he invents an alter ego for himself—the kid—who is brave and physically strong. I think we all do this to some degree. In situations where we need physical or emotional courage, we draw upon the best version of ourselves, or we think about the bravest person we know and how they might handle the situation. 

Poe, on the other hand, despite his physical strength, often has a problem being honest with himself. He has a hard time admitting mistakes until it’s too late, a hard time confronting his own weaknesses. And so Poe’s thoughts are more circular; he tends to go around and around until he comes to a solution. It is a very indirect way of thinking. Especially for Poe and Isaac, I chose to write in a more free-form style because I think this is a more accurate representation of how the mind usually works. We rarely think in complete grammatical sentences. In fact, a good deal of our thought doesn’t occur in language at all—it’s sensory impressions, images, feelings, emotions—with words and phrases mixed in as well. Of course, we can go back and explain in language all those feelings, emotions, and images, but notice how long it takes—it might take you twenty minutes to fully describe something that flashed through your mind in a half-second. So I was trying to replicate that process—in a somewhat edited way, of course.

 RHRC: Can you discuss the homages to other writers that you’ve included in the novel? Harris thinks a line from Yeats, that he would follow Grace “until he was old with wandering,” and Isaac remembers a line from Moby Dick: “His only allegiance to the king of the cannibals.” There are also allusions to Shakespeare and James Joyce’s Ulysses, and to the Bible—the novel opens with a reference to Saint Silas, who journeyed with Paul and who Isaac ironically believes might be chasing him. 

PM: There’s a temptation that most writers and artists have to feel like you’re creating something the world has never seen before, which on one hand is true, but on the other hand, we all learned from somewhere. We’re all coming from some tradition or other. I think it’s important to honor and acknowledge those traditions. The old saying that we’re standing on the shoulders of giants is true no matter what it is that we do. 

RHRC: Do you have any tips for beginning writers? 

PM: The only one that really matters is that you keep writing. In my case, I had to finish and discard two apprentice novels before beginning American Rust. I was thirty-three when American Rust was picked up by a publisher—which on one hand is quite young, but on the other is about thirteen years after I had begun to consider myself a serious writer. From what I’ve seen, the people who make it are the ones with a work ethic. It really is about patience and hard work. Talent matters, but it’s far from the determining factor—I’ve seen plenty of talented writers fall by the wayside because they didn’t know how to work hard. Or they were afraid of the level of rejection that is required before you have any success. Really, you just have to keep writing and ignore the thousands of rejections that accumulate along the way. Aside from being a good person, and treating your family and friends well, writing has to be the only thing you really care about. Once you start feeling this way, regardless of what anyone else thinks, you’re a writer. Also, as Hemingway said, you have to learn to listen. You have to learn to see people through their own eyes—any literary, psychological, or political theories you learned in college should probably be thrown out. If you’re writing a book about someone else’s theory, you probably ought to stop and start something new. Learn how to trust your own instincts before you trust what anyone tells you. 

RHRC: Anything else? 

PM: Just a thanks to everyone who read the book. Much appreciated. 

Praise | Awards

Praise

Praise for American Rust


“A novel as splendidly crafted and original as any written in recent decades, American Rust is both darkly disturbing and richly compelling. Philipp Meyer’s first novel signals the arrival of a new voice in American letters.”—Patricia Cornwell, author of Scarpetta

“With its strong narrative engine and understated social insight, American Rust is reminiscent of the best of Robert Stone and Russell Banks. Author Philipp Meyer locates the heart of his working class characters without false sentiment or condescension, and their world is artfully described. An extraordinary, compelling novel from a major talent.”—George Pelecanos, author of The Turnaround


“This is strong, clean stuff. Philipp Meyer deserves to be taken seriously.”—Pete Dexter, author of Paper Trails

“Philipp Meyer's American Rust is written with considerable dramatic intensity and pace. It manages an emotional accuracy, a deep and detailed conviction in its depiction of character. It also captures a sense of a menacing society, a wider world in the throes of decay and self-destruction.”—Colm Tóibín, author of The Master

“Meyer has a thrilling eye for failed dreams and writes uncommonly tense scenes of violence . . . Fans of Cormac McCarthy or Dennis Lehane will find in Meyer an author worth watching.”—Publishers Weekly

Awards

WINNER 2009 Economist Book of the Year
WINNER 2009 New York Times Notable Book of the Year
WINNER 2009 Kansas City Star Top 100 Book
WINNER 2009 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Best Books
WINNER 2009 Idaho Statesman's Best Books
WINNER 2010 Art Seidenbaum Award
FINALIST 2010 New York Public Library's Young Lion Fiction Award
Discussion Questions

Discussion Guides

1. In what ways does seeing the novel through the eyes of six dif - ferent characters affect your experience of the book? How would the book be different if seen through the eyes of only one char - acter? Which characters would be more or less likable if the reader saw them only from the outside? If you had to choose one char acter, whom would you choose to narrate the novel? Why?

 2. Does your opinion of various characters change throughout the book? How and why? 

3. Isaac, Poe, Lee, Grace, and Harris are all faced with important decisions that will affect not only their own lives but the lives of their loved ones. Discuss their various choices and what is at stake. Does each character make the right decision, in your opinion? 

4. One of Isaac’s obsessions is the question of what differentiates humans from other animals. What does he ultimately conclude, and why? Do you agree with him? 

5. When the book begins, Poe, despite his athleticism, considers himself a coward. Do you agree with his assessment? Does he change by the book’s end? 

6. Harris, by most conventional measures, is a good man at the book’s beginning. Does he change by the book’s end? Is he still a good man? Would society agree with you? 

7. Lee, according to her own words at the beginning of the novel, abandoned her family to save herself. Do you agree with this selfassessment? Does your opinion of her change between the beginning and the end of the book? What would you do in her shoes? 

8. Many of the characters in American Rust believe that they are not doing as well as their parents did—that their lives are less stable and their quality of life and job security are much worse than what their parents enjoyed. Is there any possibility of hope for these characters in the novel? Do you view the novel as ultimately grim or do you see it as hopeful? 

9. Isaac’s plans change after a chance encounter with a group of indigents. What do you imagine his future might have been had he made it out of town? How much does fate determine Isaac’s future, and how responsible is Isaac for his own fate? How does the novel address the theme of fate? 

10. Discuss the role of friendship in American Rust. Though Isaac and Poe seem to have little in common, they feel a strong sense of loyalty to each other. What kinds of sacrifices do they make for each other? How would you compare their relationship, which is based on a deep sense of fidelity, to other relationships in the novel? 


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