Monday, January 25, 2010
If the characters of Bonnie Jo Campbell's American Salvage introduced themselves to you, such a meeting would likely begin with a closed fist rather than a handshake, a headbutt instead of a nod. Curses, grievances, and cheap beer would spray the air, not to mention your Carhartt. Forgive the analogy, but Campbell's second collection of short fiction is making a name for itself, and for its author. A finalist for the National Book Award in the fall, American Salvage was also recently named a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award.
And how else to describe Campbell's characters? Hard luck doesn't cut it; the rural Michiganders of Campbell's universe have, for better or worse (mostly worse), authored their own sometimes miserable fates. Gritty or tenacious won't work either; those terms welcome affinity, embrace, the part of us that roots for the underdog. And in fourteen short stories, Campbell catalogues violence, addiction, abuse, cruelty, tragedy, and cold hard fact (though dedication, too, with sparse, underscored moments of grace), and her characters aren't easy to root for. In "Family Reunion," a teenage girl abused by her uncle refuses to speak. Instead she directs her quiet rage at her surroundings, obsessively hunting (and killing) deer after deer, much to her father's dismay, until she pursues justice less circumspectly. No need to tell you who lives just across the river within sight of Marylou's scope. In "King Cole's American Salvage," a junk yard owner's troubled nephew unwittingly contributes to his uncle's violent demise. It's a fate neither can embrace nor recover from entirely. Each must embody a new self, and do so on the fly. One bears a burden externally, the other internally. And while both men's circumstances have resulted in different scars, as Campbell writes, "...each of their bodies [still] contained a core of platinum."
Needless to say, with Campbell, the hits just keep on coming. Her prose is terse, her sense of place unmistakable. Starkness abounds. If there's a flaw to her work, she sometimes crafts too dense a canvas, in particular in her shorter stories. But such instances are few and far between. And, as readers, we keep hoping for redemption, a true and righteous reversal of her characters' fortunes. But Campbell is nothing if not relentless. Perhaps the book's final story, "Boar Taint," offers our best chance. Jill, a young woman married to an older divorcee, has abandoned suburban life in Ann Arbor, choosing instead to live on a farm. The choice has given her a life whose hardships she was, in part, unprepared for even after preparing for them. On the surface, "Boar Taint" is the story of an errand, as Jill leaves the farm one day to purchase a boar from a bleak and cruelly reticent family who offer Jill an outward representation of her most internalized fears. The ultimate goal of her errand is breeding pigs, though, as a way to both supplement her income and suggest to herself (and her husband) that she's made the right choice with her life, and so she's forced to go through with it. The pig is, to all parties, a metaphor, and, what's worse, Jill knows it. But just when the story looks bleakest, when her errand looks like a lesson in failure, the story (literally) rises from its own grave. If the miracle is a metaphor for Jill's life, it's also a metaphor for American Salvage. And precisely why you should read this book. After all, sometimes the things we think will turn out the worst, and leave us smarting, end up feeling very sweet instead.