By Bonnie Jo Campbell
Wayne State University Press
By Elizabeth Buzzelli
Bonnie Jo Campbells American Salvage, from Wayne State Universitys Made in Michigan Writers Series, is ugly in the stories of sad and stupid people who do harm to themselves and others, but beautiful in prose that cuts deeply into places where good writing should go.
These are tough tales from way beyond the fringes. Each story is a small room where people you dont want to know live. The trouble is you find you need to know, that you crave understanding: who they are, why, and whats made them become the barely salvaged human beings theyve become.
In The Trespasser a 16-year-old girl, along with three men, break into a family cottage to cook meth. The men leave before the family arrives but the girl stays, pretending the cottage belongs to her family, that the things in it are her own. As the family returns she escapes, but in every room shes touched things, moved things, and left behind odd art-like assemblages such as horseradish sauce atop mustard, surrounded by birthday candles laid wick to end. In a bathroom she created art from medicine bottles, and in the center of the master bed sits an ancient nest of twigs containing pale blue robins eggs (collected and blown by a great-grandmother), which forms a nativity scene with a pair of wooden dolls.
The trespassers need to be a part of the place is so pervasive the family cant shake her presence. A daughter, near the same age as the trespassing girl, dreams she is the trespasser, in her own house, and even in her own body and is haunted by a smear of blood left on a sheet.
Campbell knows how to twist a tale, and the reader. In Family Reunion she takes a terrible grievance and sets it right in torn flesh and terrible bits of memory as a violated girl yearns to be back at a family gathering, just across the river. She has used the year since the last reunion to learn to shoot, taking out many more deer than her father can fit in their freezer. With Campbellesque irony, the girl zeros in on the man who raped her the year before; aiming perfectly with an eye for an eye precision.
Two of the stories are about pervasive, infectious fears such as the millennium fears at the turn of the century. In Fuel for the Millennium Hal Little is certain that all of life in America is doomed to end at the stroke of midnight, when the year 2000 is welcomed in. He finds ways to hoard gas but, with circular logic, also accepts the end in store for him, when religion will finally save him, and place him in a heaven with babies, and his dead father, and even the smiling people hed tried to warn of what was coming.
And, in The World of Gas, Susan, office manager of a Pur-Gas outlet deals with frightened men loading up on propane for the coming end of the world. Facing problems of her own, with kids and husband and a dead end life, Susan thinks, that men were always waiting for something cataclysmiclove or war or a giant asteroid. Every man wanted to be a hot-headed Bruce Willis character, fighting against the evil foreign enemy while despising the domestic bureaucracy. Men wanted to focus on just one big thing, leaving the thousands of smaller messes for the women around them to clean up.
She sees great advantage to a millennium breakdown. Life would be quieter without power. There would be no TV going on for hours. Factory lights and noises would stop and Men of all ages everywheremen talking about football, auto engines, politics, hydraulic pumps, and the mechanics of lovewould finally just shut up.
In The Solutions to Brians Problem we are offered seven solutions, any one of which Brian, father of a baby in great danger from his meth-addicted mother, might choose to deal with his wife. This isnt a what-would-you-do kind of puzzle. These are seven sides to a problem not just with the wife, but with the man who should be protecting the baby and cant quite seem to bring himself to act. His first choice is to leave and let the wife destroy the home hes built with his own hands (unlikely). Second choice is to cut her meth with Drano. Third: Break her skull. Fourth: Pretend not to have a wife and baby. Fifth: Blow his own head off. Sixth: Call a counselor but then lie about the baby being in danger. And last. . . well . . . youll have to read the story to learn this sad, and most likely, choice.
In the best fiction there is always more truth beneath the surface than in non-fiction because the deepest recesses of the human heart can be shown. More important than fact is what humanity means. Campbell knows how to go there. In King Coles American Salvage a single line exposes how a murderers mind can chillingly imagine his crime away. After a bloody, bludgeoning murder, Campbell writes, Slocum had never killed a man and he hadnt wanted to kill this man, so he thought about buying carts full of groceries for Wandas kids and getting them medicine for their ear infections.
Campbell, is a fine writer; winner of a Pushcart Prize, AWP Award for short fiction, and the Eudora Welty Prize, among others. Her stories are cruel little gems, the facets so finely cut you barely feel the knifes edge until you realize what youre reading and are appalled, or saddened, or simply stunnedthat Michigan people live, and continue to survive, like this. You dont want to really know about them. But you must. You really must.