American Salvage
 by Bonnie Jo Campbell

Wayne State University Press
2009, Paperback
First collection? No.

awards: Finalist, 2009 ForeWord Book of the Year, nominated, national Book Award & National Book Critics Circle Award; short story The Inventor, 1972 won the Eudora Welty Prize for Fiction

Bonnie Jo Campbell is the author of the story collection Women & Other Animals, and a novel, Q Road. She has won a Pushcart Prize, The AWP Award for Short Fiction and The Southern Review’s Eudora Welty Prize. Her work has appeared in many literary journals.

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"Both he and King watched the cylinder arc ten feet in the air and momentarily capture the cold sunlight. It landed with a resounding clang on the pile of catalytic converters—mostly they were dirty and rusted from the light and mud and road salt, but each of their bodies contained a core of platinum."

Reviewed by Derek Green

As the title hints, Bonnie Jo Campbell's collection of stories, American Salvage, takes readers to a part of America most of us never glimpse first hand—a place where people still live in homes without electricity; where men join militias and stock up on fuel and ammunition as they wait, with barely concealed eagerness, for the end of civilization; where many inhabitants have long ago given up even pretending they will salvage anything from life and opt to numb themselves with cheep booze and even cheaper drugs.

Although the stories are not linked by formal device, they are deeply connected by a sense of place—in this case, rural Michigan, where Campbell grew up. Her Michigan is a landscape of contradictions—at once beautiful and blighted, cherished and detested. Her characters merge seamlessly with these surroundings, taking on the same qualities of ruined potential, steady decline and grinding desperation—all of which provide constant sources of tension to fuel the individual stories.

Campbell, who writes with a tough, sinewy prose that is by turns outright hilarious and deeply unsettling, never flinches from her material. Yet in these tales of thoughtless crimes, botched money-making schemes and hapless accidents, she often finds moments of surprising beauty and occasional grace.

In King Cole's American Salvage, we meet the eponymous King Cole—a local salvage magnate—and William Slocum, Jr., "eleven months out of prison," a friend of King's nephew, Johnny. When Slocum needs money to pay off his girlfriend's mortgage and buy the methamphetamine she craves, he decides to rob Cole, a man reputed to carry large sums of cash on his person. King resists, however, and Slocum beats him nearly to death. Although he eventually recovers, King suffers permanent impairment, and comes to rely on Johnny to do even he simplest chores needed to run the scrap yard.

The closing scene—in which Johnny works, grimly scrapping car parts, under the gaze of his frustrated uncle—perfectly displays Campbell's skill at capturing flashes of humanity in the wreckage surrounding her characters. After Johnny wrenches a catalytic converter from a scrapped car and tosses it on a heap, Campbell continues:
"Both he and King watched the cylinder arc ten feet in the air and momentarily capture the cold sunlight. It landed with a resounding clang on the pile of catalytic converters—mostly they were dirty and rusted from the light and mud and road salt, but each of their bodies contained a core of platinum."
The haunting second-person piece, The Solutions to Brian's Problem, runs a mere six paragraphs, each outlining a possible response that title-character Brian might make to the serious dilemma in which he finds himself: raising a baby boy as his wife becomes increasingly dependant drugs. Solution #2 reads: "Wait until Connie comes back from the ‘store,' distract her with the baby, and then cut her meth with Drano, so that when she shoots it up, she dies." Or, from Solution #5, "Blow your head off with the twelve-gauge you keep behind the seat of your truck." By simply laying out, one after another, the no-win choices facing Brain, Campbell allows us to experience his rage, desperation and sorrow more efficiently and viscerally than might have been possible in a much longer story.

Though her stories deal in stark and often disturbing emotions, Campbell never settles for easy cynicism. That's the case in Bore Taint, the final story in the collection. In it, a young post-doc student named Jill has left the university to marry Ernie, a rural farmer ten years her senior, whom she met on field assignment a year had half previously.

Though she loves him, Jill longs to prove herself to Ernie, a kind, gentle man of the land whose "calmness might be the antidote to everything uneasy in her." Jill also wants to disprove her own family's belief that "just because she'd studied agriculture for a year didn't mean she knew a damn thing about farming." Against Ernie's quiet skepticism, and as part of a money-making scheme, Jill decides to buy a boar hog for the suspiciously low price of $25 from the mysterious farm down the road.

In harrowing detail Campbell follows Jill's descent into a mini heart of darkness. Jill pays the menacingly silent and spectacularly poor farmers, only to discover a horribly injured animal, starved and barely possessed of the strength to climb into her stock trailer. On the way home, the animal dies in the trailer, and Jill arrives, devastated, wondering if the entire trip had merely been some way of hastening the end of the mistake of her impetuous marriage. She parks in the driveway and "Ernie looked at her expectantly, but she didn't want to get out of the truck. There was no point in getting out of the truck and showing Ernie the pig—he knew, had known all along, what folly this was."

But Ernie doesn't give up so easily. When he goes to check on the animal, he discovers it is still alive, though suffering from, among other things, several gunshot wounds. But Ernie believes it can be nursed back to health. Was it Ernie's gentleness that brought the animal back? The scene of the neighbor's animals? No matter, because the small miracle of the tainted boar's survival rallies Jill's spirit, making her believe that she can last another day, another year. "This boar," she realizes, "turned out to be exactly what she needed, a creature even bullets could not stop."

That spirit—of fighting in the face of staggering adversity, of making do with what can be salvaged from life, of enduring—suffuses this remarkable collection of stories from a very gifted writer.

Read a story from this collection in Diagram
and watch her read one of her stories

Derek Green's collection of stories, NEW WORLD ORDER, was published by Autumn House Press in 2008. His work has been twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize and is scheduled to appear in two anthologies to be published in 2010. He lives in New Haven, Connecticut with his wife and two sons.
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