Bonnie Jo Campbell’s American Salvage

BY ANTHONY COOK, Editor-in-Chief

American-Salvage-187x300I must make a disclosure right up front: I’m a huge fan of Bonnie Jo Campbell’s. I’ve been hooked ever since reading her fantastic short story, “The Smallest Man in the World,” which later appeared in her first book, Women and Other Animals. So, I read her newest book, American Salvage, with high expectations. I wasn’t let down.

American Salvage is a collection of 14 stories set in small town and rural Michigan. Though not formally linked, they share a strong sense of place and a cast of down-and-out characters, all wrapped up in Campbell’s energetic, lively prose.

Campbell presents Michigan as a place of beautiful lakes and glistening snow, but also of propane tanks, rusted El Caminos, old foundries, and salvage yards. This is done with a deft touch; it’s never heavy-handed and rarely draws attention to itself.

The characters are as ruined as the landscape. The book is populated with meth addicts, burn victims, single mothers, and abused children. There is an assault victim with brain damage and a man who loses the use of his legs in a boat crash.

This sense of ruin, both in setting and character, contributes to what are possibly the book’s most prominent themes – victimhood and the loss of innocence. Take, for example, the opening story, “The Trespasser.” A mother, father, and teenage daughter arrive at their summer cottage to find it’s been broken into and used as a meth lab. The intruders include three men, who have left, and a teenage girl, who slips out the back door unseen when the family arrives. The four-page story ends with the daughter looking at her mattress, which sits on the back porch, bare and covered in blood and semen. The mother covers the daughter’s eyes, but it’s too late. “The dream that scares [the daughter] awake over and over is the dream of entering a stranger’s bedroom – only it is her room – and encountering there her own body, waiting.”

Crimes and accidents dominate the other stories, too. Take the first line from what is perhaps the strongest story in the collection, “The Inventor, 1972”: “A rusted El Camino clips the leg of the thirteen-year-old girl, sends her flying through the predawn fog.” The driver is a homeless hunter whose face is scarred from an accident at the foundry where he once worked. That scar, however, has come to symbolize something more significant – the guilt he feels for his role in a teenage friend’s drowning death. The car accident suddenly forces him out of the role of victim, dredging up his regrets, which, unbeknownst to him, are connected to the hope of the girl who he has hit.

Despite its thematic heft, American Salvage is a short book – only 184 pages. But it accomplishes more in that space than much longer books, in part because of Campbell’s economic, keenly-observed prose. Her paragraphs are tightly constructed, but they don’t feel constricted because the sentences that make them up are punchy and alive. On top of this, Campbell often relies the omniscient point of view, which allows her to delve efficiently into the minds of more than one character in relatively little space. This can be risky, but it works in this collection because the narrative voice is authoritative, discerning and distant enough so as not to feel intrusive. This is what makes American Salvage such an impressive work: It’s a quick read, but packs in enough emotional gravity to satisfy even the most serious readers.

American Salvage by Bonnie Jo Campbell
Wayne State University Press: Detroit, MI 2009
184 Pages. $18.95 paperback.