Philipp Meyer's debut novel, American Rust (Spiegel & Grau), feels intimately familiar, and not just to readers in Western Pennsylvania, where the story is set. It traces lives connected by the thread of a dying steel-town as they unravel concomitantly in the wake of drastic poor decisions.
The novel is set in fictional Buell, in very real Fayette County -- "Fayette-nam," the familiar nickname for the county gutted by industry and decline, is invoked on the first page. Meyer himself grew up in a gritty neighborhood in Baltimore, but has some connections to the region. He's said in interviews that writing about Baltimore would be nearly impossible, even though it was a brutal place too, because he lived it. But the crushing decline of the Mon Valley seemed a perfect place to play out his tale of despair and failed redemption, of hopeless sacrifice by fragile humans.
As the story begins, unlikely best friends Isaac English and Billy Poe are watching spring come to the valley yet again, two years out of high school with no jobs and no prospects. Introspective, brainy Isaac decides it's time to get the education his sister used as an escape route and sets off on a picaresque cross-country jaunt to Berkeley. Poe, who's skated just about as far as he can on the glory of his football days, comes along.
They encounter some vagrants where they decide to camp, and Isaac murders one with a deadly-aimed rock after he menaces Poe. They flee, and Poe leaves a painfully obvious piece of evidence behind.
Poe's a big guy and a perennial fuckup with a history of violence. Isaac is a small, slight intellectual. While both can be placed at the scene, everyone knows Poe did it. Poe, with a history of saving Isaac's hide, goes to jail and doesn't give up his friend.
Isaac bumbles his way across the country, riding the rails and becoming increasingly desperate. His sister returns from her new life in New England -- where she fled immediately after their vivacious immigrant mother let the river swallow her in her despair -- to care for their invalid father, and feels the pull the beautiful and desperate town has on her. She, too, has a powerful and hidden bond with Poe.
In jail, things go badly for Poe. He tells himself he's a savior and that Isaac deserves to be outside, to live -- gentle thoughts for a man whose life has been determined by his uncontrolled rage. Inside, though, he's surrounded by brutal men, men like him. He quickly makes powerful enemies.
Harris, the cop who arrested Poe (and not for the first time) commits a shocking crime to save Poe, but only out of pity -- or love, he's not sure -- for his mother. She'll never know the gravity of his act, rendered ultimately completely pointless by the sudden return of Isaac.
Against the bleak, forbidding natural beauty and human decline of Fayette County, characters with uncharted depths destroy themselves in fruitless sacrifices trying to save one another. The relentlessly forlorn, utterly compelling tale is practically Greek in its tragedy.