Review of American Salvage
by Bonnie Jo Campbell
Wayne State University Press, 2009
Reviewed by Skip Renker
Photo by John Campbell

American Salvage, a collection of gritty, scary, tender short stories set in western Michigan, was recently nominated for the National Book Award. Campbell's work is no stranger to kudos—a previous collection, Women and Other Animals, won the Associated Writing Program award for short fiction, and her novel Q Road was well received, but the NBA is perhaps the most prestigious yearly U.S. literary prize, and a nomination is a major achievement in itself.  Is the book that good?

In a word, absolutely.  It's darker, more intense, deeper than Campbell's previous work; her trademark humor, though present, is subtler, often deadpan, and the characters in Salvage more desperate and driven.  There’s some hope here, and sometimes rough-hewn redemption, but practically every character is teetering on the brink of psychic or physical disaster.  At least five of the fourteen stories prominently feature methedrine addicts, including the first, where "The Trespasser," sixteen, and her three older male meth cohorts have broken into a summer cottage and burned half the kitchen cooking the drug.  When the men leave, the girl stays, eventually re-arranging family photos and other artifacts to create a kind of shrine to a life she's never lived and almost certainly never will.  She flees when a thirteen year-old and her parents drive up and discover the damage, and the story soon moves into the mind of the younger girl—Campbell makes many such fluid, technically flawless transitions, which are not show-offy but demonstrate how we are all connected, somehow, in our desires, crazes, occasional joys.  The younger girl develops a powerful half-revolted, half-empathic psychic bond with the unseen trespasser.

The rough and tumble of love links these stories, love in a context of economic hazard, social disintegration, environmental mess, people looking for love and finding it in all the wrong places, then losing it, destroying it, getting walloped by it.  In the book's longest story, "The Yard Man," Jerry, a part-time school custodian, rents an old farmhouse with "scrubby fields" given up to "storage sheds, rusted hulks of defunct cranes, and piles of deteriorating I-beams and concrete blocks." Jerry’s fascinated with bees, a mysterious snake, and anything that grows, but his wife wants "a nice house someday, one I can keep clean, and a nice yard."  Jerry loves her, but they're barely connected, unlike the characters in the superb story "The Inventor," where "the hunter," severely scarred years before in a foundry accident, runs his rusted El Camino into a thirteen-year-old girl, another of Campbell's beautifully rendered teenage characters, in a pre-dawn fog.  He leaves her lying by the side of the road and rushes off in a frenzied odyssey to find help, finally returning and covering her with his camouflage jacket. "He looks into her eyes to establish how much she hates him.  She meets his gaze, fixes him in her sights, but he does not see hatred.  Without moving a muscle, the girl reaches out for him, grabs hold of him with her eyes. Grabs, holds, boards him like a lifeboat …" The girl and the hunter, it turns out, are not only bound by the accident but by their love for Ricky, her deceased uncle and the hunter's childhood friend.

I suppose you could question this story and a couple of others for being a bit too schematic and coincidental, but the stories take place in a narrow geographical area near Comstock, Michigan—call it Campbell's Yoknapatawpha—where everyone seems to know everyone else, and the characters are so transparently believable, revealed with such verbal economy, that their psyches and relationships take on a life of their own that somehow transcends criticism of coincidence.  Besides, Campbell is a master of purposeful juxtaposition that sets off sparks in the reader's head without being in the least intrusively symbolic. I recommend reading American Salvage straight through and not skipping around, as the book has a kind of arc. The stories in the first two-thirds or so of the book go straight for the jugular, the gut, or even the penis (target of a .22). There's a near-immolation, a savage man-and-wife barroom brawl, a graphic scene of assault with a lead pipe, lacerating marital exchanges.  But the last three stories are slightly more tender; "Storm Warning" holds out hope that love can persist, maybe eventually thrive, through adversity—the main character, severely injured in a boat accident, is nursed by his feisty, resilient, surprising girlfriend.  And the last story, "Boar Taint," is funny, profound, and moving; it features a happy marriage that thrives on physical attraction, patience, and a common love of farming.  There’s also a resurrected bull with a battered testicle, which just might be the farm's redemption. 

I came away from reading American Salvage not only thinking about its literary beauty, but looking at people differently, thinking about their lives, pondering how writing about such damaged, luminous fictional characters can engender, if only momentarily, empathy and compassion, an altered way of seeing.  No matter who wins the National Book Award, I hope the nomination brings in readers from not only Michigan but every other state; it's a powerful evocation of how so many of our fellow humans are living now.  It’s a book to take to heart.

Skip Renker, Professor Emeritus at Delta College, lives in Midland, Michigan. His poetry has appeared in the chapbook Sifting the Visible (Mayapple Press) and various literary journals.

© Skip Renker, 2009