The houses are ramshackle, the trucks old, the weather extreme. The men, wearing shabby camouflage and stained feed company caps, are battered and scarred. They drink too much and work too hard with metal molten and stone-cold. They stand by their women no matter how ornery, destructive, or flat-out crazy they are. Or they think about killing them. And the women do the same for the men. Money is tight; jobs are disappearing, as is the wildlife; loneliness is a plague, and folks keep burning down houses while cooking meth. Welcome to rural Michigan, Bonnie Jo Campbell’s home ground, and welcome to American Salvage, a short story collection of rare impact. These are fine-tuned stories of metaphorical glory shaped by stealthy wit, stunning turns of event, and breath-taking insights. This is America, all right, and salvage is a concept Campbell illuminates in so many ways, readers will themselves feel saved, reborn, transformed.
I’ve been a raving Bonnie Jo Campbell fan for 10 years, even since I was knocked down in bliss and wonder by her first book, Women and Other Animals, and oh yes, what a title. Bonnie Jo’s novel is Q, The Road. She is the winner of a Pushcart Prize, the AWP Award for Short Fiction, and the Southern Review’s Eudora Welty Prize. I had the great pleasure of including a story by Bonnie Jo, "Septmeber News from Susanna's Farm," in the issue of TriQuarterly I guest-edited. Campbell is a sizzling writer. American Salvage is a brilliant, brave, unforgettable book. And it is a finalist for the National Book Award, a tremendous feat for a book of short stories from a small university press.
Here's my starred BOOKLIST review (yes, I know, I've already looted it above):
*Starred BOOKLIST Review* American Salvage.
By Bonnie Jo Campbell.
2009. 184p. Wayne State Univ., paper, $18.95 (9780814334126)
The houses are ramshackle, the trucks hard-used, the weather extreme. The men, clad in shabby camouflage, are battered and scarred. They labor at dangerous, soul-killing jobs; hunt; drink too much; and stand by their loved ones no matter how flat-out crazy they are (or they think about killing them). Ditto for the women. Money is tight; the old ways and the precious wildlife are disappearing; loneliness is a plague; and the meth-cookers keep burning down the house. Welcome to rural Michigan, Campbell’s home ground, and a story collection of rare impact. These fine-tuned stories are shaped by stealthy wit, stunning turns of events, and breathtaking insights. Terrible injuries, accidental and otherwise, leave people and animals in misery, but they are salvaged, maybe even healed. Against all odds, salvation counterbalances loss and despair in unexpected ways in this small place of big feelings, where everyone is yoked together for better and worse, and where, as one persistent survivor observes, “what looked like junk to most people could be worth real money.” Campbell’s busted-broke, damaged, and discarded people are rich in longing, valor, forgiveness, and love, and readers themselves will feel salvaged and transformed by this gutsy book’s fierce compassion.
And watch for my interview with Bonnie Jo Campell on Chicago Public Radio.