Part earnest Dreiserian tragedy, part Cormac McCarthy novel transplanted to the Steel Belt, Meyer’s debut in the end takes a gothic turn into blockbuster-movie bloodbath.
Gifted, 20-year-old Isaac has the double bad luck of being born in a dying Pennsylvania steel town and of having an equally smart sister who’s already escaped, to Yale and afterward to marriage, leaving him home to tend his disabled father. At the novel’s beginning, Isaac has stolen $4,000 from the old man’s desk and is lighting out with the quixotic idea that he’ll hop a freight and somehow reach the Shangri-La of Berkeley and an astrophysics degree. Isaac is accompanied for the first stretch by his friend Poe, an ex-football star on probation because of a brutal fight that could have earned him serious time except that the sheriff, his mother’s lover, intervened. When they seek refuge from the weather in an abandoned factory along the tracks, Isaac and Poe encounter other refugees, transients of longer standing and rougher mien. Hair-triggered Poe incites a fight, and Isaac kills a man with a stone thrown in defense of his friend. This death sets in motion a complex plot that centers on the impossibility of escape, be it from place, circumstance or character. Meyer does a terrific job capturing the tone and ethos of his setting, half postindustrial wasteland and half prelapsarian Eden (OK, four-fifths postindustrial wasteland and one-fifth prelapsarian Eden). Several of the alternating narrators are compellingly drawn, especially the sheriff and Isaac, whose flight is a hellishly compacted journey from innocence to experience. The self-styled “Kid” encounters misery and perfidy everywhere he goes—until he decides to face the music and turns homeward.
Despite some contrived plot developments, a grimly powerful hybrid: provocative literary fiction crossed with a propulsive thriller.