The surprise of “American Salvage”

Bonnie Jo Campbell burst onto the literary scene with the nomination of American Salvage for a 2009 National Book Award in Fiction. I read this collection of stories because of that nomination and also because American Salvage seemed to come out of nowhere. And so I discovered the work of a talented writer who can take readers into jobless, drug-addicted fictional lives with narrative intimacy and beauty without ignoring or simplifying the ugliness.

Campbell’s atmospheric palate is similar to that of Donald Ray Pollock and Carolyn Chute by claiming thematic residency in a regional poor, working class setting of Michigan foundry workers, deer hunters and junkyard workers. These are hard-pressed people who struggle to love one another, especially when methamphetamine is involved. Several of the 14 stories take us into powerful places of emotional wreckage caused by addiction.

In the story “The Solutions of Brian’s Problems,” a husband on the brink of losing his job, house and baby to Social Services thinks through actions he can take to change life married to a meth-hooked wife. His solutions range from walking out on her to cutting her meth with Drano so she dies when she shoots up. Each of the seven solutions is shocking and yet frighteningly tenable because Campbell writes from inside Brian’s harsh, ruined reality.

Her stories beat a steady rhythm of money problems. Characters have lost their jobs or struggle to make ends meet on reduced hours. In two stories they worry about Y2K and the loss of fuel supplies.  Many times what they do is not for themselves, rather an act of love for someone else.

In the title story, “King Cole’s American Salvage,” a man attacks a salvage yard owner for the wads of cash he carries in his pockets. He needs the money to pay his meth-addicted girlfriend’s mortgage. In a brilliantly written moment of subtle gestures and words, Campbell ends the story with the victim’s flash of realization that his trusted nephew, who is a friend of the attacker, was involved in the crime. 

Even though crime or wrong-doing predominate in this engaging collection, Campbell intends for us to see her characters  sympathetically. She succeeds because she writes with knowledge of how desperate people hope and love, telling stories in a style of unsettling grace.