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Likely Stories : American Rust, by Philipp Meyer


I’m Jim McKeown, welcome to Likely Stories, a weekly review of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry.

Philipp Meyer grew up in Baltimore.  After spending several years volunteering at a trauma center in downtown Baltimore, he attended Cornell University, where he studied English.  He split his time between Texas and upstate New York.  American Rust is his first novel.

This deeply perplexing novel will draw your attention to minute details, as these characters relate their stories.  The tale begins, Philipp writes, “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 (3).  This opening page is cleverly set for what portends.

The story continues, “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” (4).  Isaac and Poe are the two main characters at this point.

To continue Meyer’s story, “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 back was notebooks.  He liked being outside” (5).

I turn to Poe, Philipp continues, “Poe lived at the top of a dirt road in a doublewide trailer that sat, like many houses outside the 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. // 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” (5). 

Philipp Meyer has written a stunning story of two young men out on their own.  American Rust is a story impossible to put aside.  Readers will want to savor every word.  5 Stars!

Likely Stories is a production of KWBU.  I’m Jim McKeown.  Join me again next time for Likely Stories, and happy reading!