'American Rust': Dying Towns And Dreams Deferred Philipp Meyer talks about his dark novel American Rust, and how the story of life in a Pennsylvania steel town reflects broad trends in blue-collar America.
NPR logo

'American Rust': Dying Towns And Dreams Deferred

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/101747442/101926744" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
'American Rust': Dying Towns And Dreams Deferred

'American Rust': Dying Towns And Dreams Deferred

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/101747442/101926744" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


We head now to Buell, Pennsylvania. Never heard of it? That's because it's all in author Philipp Meyer's head. Buell is the setting of his debut novel, "American Rust." Welcome to the program, Philipp Meyer.

Mr. PHILIPP MEYER (Author, "American Rust"): Thanks, Jacki.

LYDEN: Would you please take us to Buell? We know it's south of Pittsburgh. Take us on a tour through the town.

Mr. MEYER: Sure. For 80 years, Buell was a thriving, middle-class community like most manufacturing towns in the Northeast, and it was mostly dependent on the steel industry, and when steel went under, it took the town with it. And the book deals a lot with the first generation of people to grow up after these high-wage manufacturing jobs have left.

LYDEN: Well, one character, young Billy Poe, sums it up the best. He's just barely out of his teens. He says you ought to be able to grow up in a place and not have to get the hell out of it when you turn 18. Why did you set your story in a place that was decaying like this?

Mr. MEYER: I think, yeah, that's a very good question. I grew up in a blue-collar neighborhood in Baltimore, and this was in the late '70s and '80s, and the neighborhood was called Hampden, and it had been hit pretty hard by the disappearance of the textile industry, the ship-building industry, and then later, by the automation of the docks and ports in Baltimore. And what fascinated me was what happens to the social fabric of these places when the rug gets pulled out from under these people.

So - I mean, in my neighborhood, for instance, there was a fair amount of violent crime. There was a guy who was nearly beaten to death in front our of house, and - but at the same time, there was still a strong community. So, I wanted to explore the juxtaposition of those two things.

LYDEN: So, why does Billy Poe want to stay?

Mr. MEYER: Well, I think home, home is the place all our friends are. It's where our social safety net is. And I mean, it's one thing to go away from home and to leave for college. It's quite another thing to get up and leave a place. And in Billy's case, where he's always been a little afraid of trying new things, this is the place that he feels most himself.

LYDEN: It is a beautiful place. You write frequently about how beautiful it is.

Mr. MEYER: Yeah. I think that this is absolutely important. I think that a, the Mon Valley in the Pittsburgh area is a very beautiful place.

LYDEN: The Mon Valley, and of course, that's the Monongahela River, which flows through Pittsburgh.

Mr. MEYER: Yeah. But I think that no matter what people's circumstances, they always find beauty in the places around them, you know, whether they live in a rundown urban neighborhood. And in this place - I mean, I interviewed many, many people, I spent a lot of time in the Mon Valley, and everybody - it was soothing to look at the beauty around them, the trees and the river and the rolling hills.

LYDEN: "American Rust" is told from six different perspectives, six major players. Some of these people want to leave Buell, others don't. There's a whole range of hopes and aspirations, and I thought that the most complex character was the police chief, Bud Harris(ph). Would you tell me about him?

Mr. MEYER: Sure. Bud Harris is one of the few people in the book who is, on some level, comfortable with his life. He has a good salary and a good wage. He has a house.

LYDEN: Good dog.

Mr. MEYER: Good dog, exactly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LYDEN: Named Farley(ph).

Mr. MEYER: A loyal dog. Yeah, and so his problems are more sort of existential. He's lonely. He's in love with a woman who he's not sure loves him back. And it was important to me to show that life in these communities is not just doom and gloom, that there are folks who manage to make good lives for themselves, but they have the same problems that the rest of us do.

LYDEN: I want to ask you, though, you did spend quite a bit of time in the Mon Valley talking to a lot of people. You credit the Mon Valley Unemployed Committee. What did the people that you spoke to as you were researching this book tell you about their dreams?

Mr. MEYER: Well, your dreams are often quite dependent on where you're from. I mean, if you grow up in a stable, middle class family, your dreams, they might be nearly anything. Oh, I want to be a doctor, a lawyer, a musician. Your dreams tend to be set by the folks around you.

So the dreams of working class folks tend to be more limited. Maybe they see the guy as the successful auto mechanic around the corner or the guy who's the police officer, and that guy has a good salary.

So I think more than we're willing to admit, our dreams don't always come from within. They're set by our external circumstances.

LYDEN: Phillip Meyer is the author of "American Rust." Thanks very much for joining us.

Mr. MEYER: Thanks, Jacki.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.