American Salvage

By Bonnie Jo Campbell

Dalkey Archive Press
December 2009, Hardcover
184 pages

Portrait of the Writer as a Domesticated Animal

Reviewed by John Yohe


The cover of Bonnie Jo Campbell’s American Salvage is stark: Just three colors, black and white and red, the photo in the bottom half featuring a young white man and woman in front of what looks like an old barn or garage, the scene black and white except for the young woman’s red dress. Although she’s standing in the foreground, she’s a little out of focus, dark and gritty and timeless, like the characters in Campbell’s stories.

Most of these characters are men, and while they might range from incompetent alcoholics to confident farmers, they all seem a little lost and confused about life. The collection’s best story, “The Solutions to Brian’s Problem,” is actually a series of short alternate realities, each depicting how Brian might deal with his wife Connie who, like many of Campbell’s characters, struggles with substance abuse (in her case, crystal meth). Some of the possibilities are funnier than others, but all have a dark edge, like “Solution #1”:

Connie said she was going out to the store to buy formula and diapers. While she’s gone, load up the truck with the surround-sound home-entertainment system and your excellent collection of power tools, put the baby boy in the car seat, and drive away from this home you built with your own hands. Expect that after you leave, she will break all the windows in this living room, including the big picture window, as well as the big mirror over the fireplace, which you’ve already replaced twice. The furnace will run and run. Then she will go to your mother’s looking for you, and when she does not find you, she will curse at your mother and possibly attempt to burn your mother’s house down. Connie has long admired the old three-story farmhouse for its west-facing dining room with window seats and the cupola with a view for miles around. You and Connie have discussed living there some day.

Like Connie and Brian, Campbell’s other characters are mostly lower-class white folks living just outside of the city. The world of American Salvage is a rural one, with farms, trailers, pickup trucks, burned down houses, and garages with gutted deer hanging from rafters. In “The Yard Man,” Jerry is the maintenance man for the old salvage yard where he lives rent free, the only way he can afford a home for his wife and her children. He could be happy with that life, but his wife isn’t, and the dynamic between them captures the feel of the whole collection: Being poor sets up a no-win situation, dissatisfaction with their economic situation transferring over to, or entwined with, their relationships with each other.

The women in Campbell’s stories all seem a little fuzzy, and while they are often just as lost as the men, they also seem to lack the men’s confidence. In the last story, “Boar Taint,” Jill marries a farmer after graduate school, to the horror of her middle-class family. She wants to be able to contribute to their farm with projects of her own, but her efforts always seem to go wrong. During the story, she attempts to buy a pig, with the intention of breeding it. She fails again, not because of her gender but because of her class. Contrasted with Ma, the powerful farm matriarch in charge of everything from the finances to the men folk, it seems Jill will never gain confidence and authority, no matter how hard she tries.

Jill is the only character who chooses to live in this world. The rest of the characters seem resigned to it at best. At worst, most are like “the hunter” in the story “The Inventor,” who asks: “What point is there in a world like this?” He never comes to a conclusion, and Campbell isn’t here to give lessons either. Yet no character ever despairs completely either, despite there being plenty of suffering. Many characters self-medicate to deal with it but, as “the girl” in “The Inventor” says, anything is “better than dead.”

To borrow from recent presidential campaign slogans, there’s not a lot of hope here, nor much chance of change. So, is there anything “salvageable”? Even if the characters in American Salvage think that they’re not worth much, Campbell thinks they are, and worthy of compassion too. But not pity. Again, while there are no easy solutions to the problems raised here, Campbell hasn’t created a lower-class zoo, as entertainment for the middle class. Instead, by telling these people’s stories, she’s giving them a little dignity. Perhaps a better way of saying that would be that she’s giving them back a little dignity, since the collection gives an impression that this world was at some time better off. Whether it ever could be again is doubtful, but Campbell ensures that whatever the ultimate outcome, these people will not be forgotten.