Monday, January 25, 2010

American Salvage

Bonnie Jo Campbell

Detroit, Wayne State University Press, 2009

Short Story Collection. This is a bonus book for me this week because of the long plane ride home from visiting my mother. Bonnie Jo Campbell is a Kalamazoo author whose short story collection, American Salvage, was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2010. This is a big deal, and I am not sure she received the publicity she deserved for this accomplishment. It was also the first time that Wayne State University Press had a book thus recognized.

These are stories about people I know--the people who are on the periphery of my life in Kalamazoo; Jim, who worked for us from his teenage years on… a father at 17, in jail several times…no education and now working at a used-tire service; Deb, a greenhouse worker whose daughter was killed in a hit and run accident and self-medicated her grief with meth; her alcoholic brother Ken, a skilled house painter, whose hands shake so badly from alcoholism that he can’t paint too much.

These are the people who are on the periphery of Bonnie Jo Campbell’s life as well. She tells their stories superbly, full of details and despair. But, what makes the stories worth reading is that there is an indomitability about these characters that makes you keep reading, even when what is happening to them is hard to swallow. It reminds you of what you hear people say frequently during these hard times; “I keep keeping on.”

The centerpiece of the collection is the story of “The Yard Man.” Jerry lives in a rundown house with his wife and two stepchildren, yet he is fascinated with the nature that surrounds him, even inside the house. His wife is not so fascinated, and he has to balance these two major aspects of his life.

The stories ring true with the things that we know and the things that we read about in the paper. I really enjoyed the two stories about the millennium and the preparations many made for the disruptions they felt they would find. A woman character says, “This millennium business was just another distraction to keep men from being of any goddamned use whatsoever.” She thinks this as her brother-in-law buys more propane gas to keep his generator going when the electricity is cut off. I am currently hearing about people doing this for when the world will end in 2012.

Some stories make you cringe; most of the characters are not sweet or dear or appealing in any way. Yet, I was especially touched by the story, “The Solution to Brian’s Problem,” in which the young father tries to figure out how he is going to deal with his wife’s meth addiction. I know a young father who most likely has thought of these same solutions.

Interspersed throughout these stories are the places we know; Meijers, Hardings, Bell’s Brewery. The stories in American Salvage are a great read.

Here is Bonnie Jo Campbell’s website:

This is an interesting interview that explains a lot about how Bonnie Jo knows these characters:

A review of American Salvage in the Chicago Tribune:

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