Reviewed by Matthew Jakubowski
These fourteen grim, finely tuned short stories, which earned Bonnie Jo Campbell a 2009 National Book Award nomination for fiction, are set in rural southwestern Michigan and focus on poor white folk. It's a beautifully written collection, yet a harrowing one -- especially if read all at once. Page by page, Campbell portrays the thoughts of rape survivors, meth addicts, alcoholics, victims of accidents and violent crimes, each clinging to any flawed human relationship they can in small towns ravaged by economic decline.
The details of these damaged people's lives are delivered to the page with such an urgent but natural density that the book feels like it was based on news reports and exhaustive research. The opening story, "The Trespasser," sets the menacing tone. Its sense of dread -- an affluent family finds their vacation home destroyed by meth addicts who used it to cook drugs and gang-rape a teenage girl -- acts as an entry point to the landscape, as if Campbell is welcoming readers to a hidden world full of dark possibilities.
Much like Junot Diaz, Campbell uses a conventional storytelling style with simple lines that resonate against each other, as if their interplay has been long considered. In "Family Reunion," a solid phrase like "she hates that first slice that turns the deer from a creature into meat" shows a character's mind at work. But the phrase carries a fearful momentum because Campbell has placed it midway through the story of a fourteen-year-old girl who's about to butcher another of the huge bucks she has killed while hunting alone. Soon after, despite hating it, the girl grabs a knife and "unzips the buck from chest to balls."
While the details can be gory and eerie, the pacing of Campbell's prose is refined. Tension fills the spaces her plot elements create in the mind as she moves toward endings that can pop with a violent surprise ("Family Reunion") or hiss with knowledge of a character's slow annihilation ("The Yard Man"). Moments of revelation are often unpleasant. In "King Cole's American Salvage," a young junkyard worker's thoughts rebel to form a damning elegy: "King was watching him, and it made Johnny conscious of his own breath forming a cloud that hung around him, a cloud that kept him down here on the oily, hard-packed dirt of the salvage yard, down here wearing his greasy clothes, picking through the piles of engines and axles with his filthy hands, down in this neighborhood of ramshackle houses with dogs barking in the torn up yards." By using the word "down" three times, Campbell shows how Johnny hammers home the belief, like nails in a coffin, that he's already dead and buried.
The prose of American Salvage can also be very economical. At one point Campbell describes the interior of a barn as containing "shafts of sunlight full of hay dust." This compact phrase disguises how well the author has avoided the inherent temptation to describe the dust's falling movement -- a trap of cliche. She's also adept at avoiding adjectives to great effect. At another point, we read of a man's face blemished by "scars the color of power-steering fluid." Is that brown? Dark blue? Even if you have no idea what color power-steering fluid is, the level of disfigurement is clear.
The stories do occasionally lapse into melodrama as they repeatedly focus on rape, meth abuse, and, almost quaintly, the Y2K scare. Despite this, the message gets through that the danger and horror of life here has a deadly allure, and developing a sense of humor is a survival skill. In one of the Y2K stories, "World of Gas," a woman looks forward to the apocalypse because "life would be quieter without power. . . . Men of all ages everywhere -- men talking about football, auto engines, politics, hydraulic pumps, and the mechanics of love -- would finally just shut up."
In the final, powerhouse story, "Boar Taint," Campbell investigates the question of how and why this region's men and women continue to suffer one another's love, foolishness, and violence. After visiting a dirt-poor farm run by one woman and home to many sullen men, the female visitor chides herself later for not reaching out to the other lonely woman. "She should have demanded an answer: Why had there been no other women at that farm? And, more importantly, why had the one woman stayed?" These are questions directed at the reader as much as at the character. And the answers we might salvage say much about America in the new millennium.
Books mentioned in this post