Buell, Pennsylvania, is a dying town. Though it was once home to a thriving steel industry, the mills have closed, the workers have been laid off and the remaining residents are just trying to get by.

Or get out, in the case of Isaac English and Billy Poe. The young men missed their chance to leave after high school. Isaac, the smartest boy in town, was expected to follow his sister Lee’s footsteps to a prestigious college. He instead remained in Buell, caring for his disabled father. Poe is left languishing, jobless, after turning down offers to play college football. They seem unlikely friends—the brain and the jock—but in high school the boys were both the best at what they did.

When Isaac decides he can’t take any more, he takes his father’s money and his friend on his way out of town. But an unintentional murder stops the boys and becomes the impetus for all that follows.

In American Rust, debut novelist Philipp Meyer employs the voices of the boys and four others as narrators to reveal the ensuing action. It’s a tactic that has been used by novelists many times before, but it is amazingly effective here. Meyer captures personalities with each depiction; instead of merely stating that Isaac was the smartest kid in his grade, Meyer reveals Isaac’s intelligence in the distinction between his words and Poe’s. Poe’s rambling, run-on sentences capture the energy with which he must have played high school football. When the reality of the murder sets in, Isaac’s narration becomes less coherent, dissolving into a frantic internal monologue.

As the story unfolds, layers are revealed. These are unraveling lives in a town that’s long since unraveled as steel mills closed and industry left the valley. Meyer’s tale reminds us there’s so much more below the surface of what we see—more to the smart kid, the jock, the parents who raised them, the good cop and the little steel town.


Carla Jean Whitley writes from Birmingham, Alabama, a steel town that has adapted to include new industries.


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