Hampden gave rise to 'Rust'

Author Philipp Meyer drew on his upbringing

March 08, 2009|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

It wasn't apparent to anyone for the longest time that Baltimore author Philipp Meyer had hopped the freight train to success - just like the protagonist of his acclaimed debut novel, American Rust. Every time Meyer's line of boxcars seemed to be chugging along the straight and narrow, it would suddenly grind to a halt and shift into reverse.

For starters, despite a stratospheric IQ, Meyer dropped out of City College at age 16. After three tries, he elbowed his way into prestigious Cornell University. After graduating, Meyer worked as a trader on Wall Street and made piles of money before deciding that he wasn't cut out for a life of empty materialism. So he quit, moved into the basement of his parents' home, and picked up odd jobs in construction. Then, Meyer, who had been writing seriously since college, sold his first novel for $400,000.

The miracle isn't that Meyer survived. It's that his stouthearted parents, Eugene and Rita Meyer of Baltimore, made it through those hairpin twists and turns alongside their son without losing their dinner.

"My parents were amazingly supportive," says Meyer, 34. "My friends thought I was deluded."

Tomorrow, Meyer will read from his novel in a bookstore a few miles from the Hampden home in which he grew up. American Rust tells the story of two high school friends living in a depressed steel town: the slight, cerebral Isaac English and Billy Poe, a former football star with a hair-trigger temper. When Isaac tries to leave home, he and Billy have an encounter with three homeless men that turns violent. Things proceed from bad to worse, and the harder the friends struggle to escape, the more they are trapped.

Meyer has been compared to such famous writers as John Steinbeck, Richard Russo and, in a review in today's Baltimore Sun, William Faulkner.

Though the novel is set in Pennsylvania, Meyer drew on his Baltimore upbringing for elements of his story.

For instance, in the early 1980s, a man was nearly murdered in front of Meyer's home.

"It turned out that he had been shot by a guy in a bar who was protecting his friend," Meyer says - a turn of events echoed in the novel.

"He died in prison," Meyer says, who now lives outside Ithaca, N.Y. "That was when I began to think about how an awful choice becomes the best choice someone can make. "

And it was in Hampden that Meyer realized that appearances can be deceiving.

"I learned that people who might not get a lot of credit for being deep thinkers, may have rich and complex visions for their own lives that might not be apparent on the surface," he says.

That description could apply, as well, to Meyer, who had near-perfect SAT scores but dropped out of high school because he was bored. (He later earned his GED.)

"We were not happy when he dropped out of school," says his mother, Rita Meyer. "I remember telling him that by quitting, a lot of options were being closed off.

"But, we knew that he was very smart and very creative, and it was clear that school wasn't working for him. It was just a question of him finding out what he wanted to do."

Meyer's parents held onto their faith throughout the next two decades. Eugene Meyer recalls that when Philipp was living in their basement, he worked construction jobs, and occasionally, as an emergency medical technician, where he learned his way around hospital trauma centers.

"Philipp was a good listener," Eugene Meyer says. "He'd come home from work, and sit at the kitchen table and tell me these stories."

But the budding author was going through a crisis of confidence. He'd written two novels in college and while working on Wall Street that attracted zero interest from publishers. He thought about giving up and becoming a paramedic.

"That was when I really began to confront the demons," Meyer says. Meyer began thinking hard about the qualities defining great literature.

"I realized - finally - that I was writing for an audience," he says. "I began to consider how I wanted my readers to feel, and how to achieve that. All of a sudden, I started to get short stories published."

With a few credits from such respected literary magazines as The Iowa Review and McSweeney's, Meyer was admitted to the Michener Center for Writers in Texas and began work on American Rust.

His professors were impressed with the manuscript and helped their gifted student sign with two agents. In December 2007, Random House bought the novel.

"One day, I'm this little punk kid," Meyer says, "and the next day, I'm a published author and I know that I'll be able to pay my bills and keep writing. It felt incredible."

Meyer has no plans to set a novel in his hometown - at least, not any time soon.

Meyer's second novel will be set in Texas, but it can't help but be informed by the values and life lessons the author learned in Charm City. The cattle ranches and oil derricks of Meyer's imagination are built on the solid foundation of a Formstone rowhouse.

'rust' reading

Author Philipp Meyer will read from American Rust and sign copies of his novel at 6 p.m. tomorrow at The Ivy Bookshop, 6080 Falls Road. Free. Call 410- 377-2966.

Read a review of Philipp Meyer's American Rust, PG 8

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