Sponsored by the Women’s National Book Association, National Reading Group Month is a celebration of book clubs, encouraging their growth and promoting the love of literature. As they say, “It’s an opportunity for reading groups to reflect on their accomplishments and plan for the future — the perfect time to join or start a group.”
Throughout October, we’ll be posting reading guides of some of our favorite Random House book club picks, both older and newer. Today we kick off with Philipp Meyer’s American Rust, originally published in February 2009. Just the other day we got some incredible feedback about this debut novel from Carla Jimenez, a bookseller at Inkwood Books in Tampa, Florida:
“I missed this stunner in hardcover until I heard more than one author I love call it the best novel they’d read in years–and they were right. A once-prosperous, now very depressed steel town is home to best friends Isaac English, caring for his invalid father rather than off at a prestigious college, and Billy Poe, past his glory days in high school football. The economic landscape adds to the inevitable ricocheting of every bad choice, for these stumbling young men and the other compelling characters. Comparisons to Steinbeck, McCarthy and Lehane and appropriate and deserved, and as Library Journal says, there’s ‘a Pandora’s box of debate for book clubs in this heartbreakingly beautiful book.’ “
Consider these questions while reading American Rust:
1. In what ways does seeing the novel through the eyes of six different characters affect your experience of the book? How would the book be different if seen through the eyes of only one character? Which characters would be more or less likable if the reader saw them only from the outside? If you had to choose one character, 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 self-assessment? 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?