'American Salvage' delves into lonely, modern working-class small-town Michigan life
Bonnie Jo Campbell creates stories that somehow dig deep while also soaring
Well, it looks as though Illinois writer Jean Thompson, with her recent collection "Do Not Deny Me," has middle-class Midwestern life pretty well covered for the year. Now here's Bonnie Jo Campbell in "American Salvage" taking on the question of life among Michigan working-class folks, and making stories that dig deep and somehow soar at the same time.
She sets most of her stories in a small Michigan town that has been saturated with methamphetamine, a place suffering the torpors of a declining Rust Belt economy and all of the usual small-town modern times pains -- loss of love, splintered families, despair about the future -- as well. Even the happy families, such as that of Jerry and his wife, Natalie, must fight off assaults from invading nature, from ermine to bees to snakes. Jerry can't sleep because of a hole in the baseboard of their bedroom, fearing that anything "could move into that empty space and lurk there, a bat or a squirrel or bugs or some awful art of himself, maybe."
That worry turns out to be in many of the other stories, except it's people from town, the neighbors, who assault one another. In the story "King Cole's American Salvage," from which Campbell takes the title for the collection, an ex-con named William Slocum Jr. robs an auto salvage yard owner, beating him nearly to death, all so he can buy his beloved girlfriend Wanda some methamphetamine "to keep herself going since she had lost her job" and help her pay her mortgage. He beats the salvage yard man so badly with a length of galvanized pipe that the victim's blood spills over the money Slocum finds in his pockets.
In one of the most chilling passages in recent fiction -- all the more so because of the matter-of-fact way the writer presents it -- Slocum presents his girl with the cash. " 'Here's your house payment, babe.' 'Look at you,' she said, but she was looking at the money. With two fingers she lifted a 50-dollar bill from the stack and held it away from herself. 'Willie, this money's covered with blood.' 'Sorry about that.' Slocum looked at his hands, which were also covered with blood. 'We can wash it in the sink,' Wanda said."
Alas, what these people do to one another can't be washed away or erased. Even the children suffer from a deadening of expectations, as we hear when a schoolgirl, run over by a man racing along the road on a foggy morning, lies waiting for help, considers the miseries of what may come in her life. "What if the future were camouflage and gray and sour, phlegm and dirty snow, wounds and scars and boys killing helpless pond creatures?"
Humor is a toothless meth addict, joking with her earnest ex-husband that she has committed incest with her former stepson. And though the future envisioned by the most level-headed adults, as in the mind of Doug, the victim of an accident, takes on a certain lyrical force, it remains bleak nonetheless: "The universe seemed darker than he'd realized, and larger, which made each thing in it, including him, smaller. Years ago, smart-aleck schoolboys like him ... should have learned more than their grammar and arithmetic. Why hadn't they learned the way bodies could break and how slow and difficult it was to heal?"
In these stories about cold, lonely, meth-drenched, working-class Michigan life, there's a certain beauty reaching something like the sublimity of a D.H. Lawrence story. Few of the stories have endings that seem resolved. Because of their despairing feel, and their shape and form, they seem quite lifelike.
Alan Cheuse is an author, a writing teacher at George Mason University and a book commentator for NPR's "All Things Considered."
By Bonnie Jo Campbell
Wayne State University Press, $18.95, 171 pages