“I like to go where the life is. I’m pro-life, in the sense that chaos seems like life to me and order seems like death. I’m of the people in the bar and the people in my stories. They are my tribe.” – The Rumpus interviews the National Book Award finalist.
To an outsider, Bonnie Jo Campbell’s life might seem full of surprises. Once upon a time, she was a circus worker; later, she was a contender for a Ph.D. in Mathematics. She holds rank of nidan, second degree black belt, in kobudo, the art of Okinawan weapons. And she writes. As the author of a previous collection of stories, Women & Other Animals, and the novel Q Road, she’s won a Pushcart Prize, the AWP Award for Short Fiction, and the Southern Review’s 2008 Eudora Welty Prize for “The Inventor, 1972,” a story in her second collection, the 2009 National Book Award-nominated American Salvage.
American Salvage seems to break NBA conventions: It’s not a novel (not even a novel-in-stories) and it’s not published by a major New York house but by Wayne State University Press’s Made in Michigan Writers Series. But however surprising all these twists and turns might seem, it’s business as usual for Campbell, a Kalamazoo, Michigan, farm girl who happens to keep donkeys. What follows is a review of American Salvage—and if that’s not enough, an interview with its author, conducted on the eve of the National Book Award ceremony.
In other words, it’s another fantastic Rumpus Original Combo.
The Rumpus Review of American Salvage
A finalist for this year’s National Book Award in fiction, Bonnie Jo Campbell’s short story collection American Salvage is an overnight sensation—twenty-five years in the making. And whether or not the author walks home tonight with the bronze statue and an extra thou in cash, any night a reader spends with her book will give them a gift that stays with them for the next twenty-five years.
Judging by her influences, Campbell’s success is no surprise; previous NBA winners are embedded in her writer-DNA. As deep-dark as Joyce Carol Oates and as black-humored as Flannery O’Connor, Campbell adds down-in-the-dirt setting (economically depressed Kalamazoo County, Michigan), characters (the desperate, deranged, drug-addled, and physically debilitated), and her own brand of realism (broke-down cars, homes, and farms with few prospects in sight) to a collection that tells poignant, painful truths about American life.
Remember that moment when Tim O’Brien’s First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross puts that stone in his mouth for love, in “The Things They Carried”? Or when Denis Johnson’s Fuckhead, oops, crushes those tender baby bunnies against his body, in the drug stupor of “Emergency”? The best moments in American Salvage are like that—they get you in an instant and stay with you forever. Take the opening story, “The Trespasser,” wherein a family—mother, father, teenage daughter with braces—enter their “family cottage” to discover it’s been burned and pillaged by a troupe of meth addicts, including a 16-year-old girl and three considerably older male strangers/drug connections who broke in through the kitchen window and cooked up their stuff:
It is the teenaged daughter, the swimmer, the honor student, who discovers her own missing mattress on the river-side porch, screams “Mommy!” a term she hasn’t used in years. The trespasser had dragged the mattress out onto the porch as soon as the men had gone. The daughter studies the sheet, torn off, tangled at one end, the quilted fabric of the mattress crusted with jism, more jism than the daughter’s mother has ever seen… the daughter sees there’s blood, too, smeared across the fabric, dried and darkened… That night… the dream that scares [the daughter] awake over and over again is the dream of entering a stranger’s bedroom—only it is her room—and encountering there her own body, waiting.
Campbell’s battlefield may be in Michigan, but she shows the real war, still and always is, as Faulkner said, the human heart in conflict with itself. And she shows without flinching what exists in the distance between the Haves and the Have Nots. She shows, too, how the artifacts of our lives may shift in an instant and reveal a horror we recognize: drugs, destitution, desperation, damage, that can easily enter our homes, rearrange our illusions of safety, flash a mirror at us to show the real straits our communities swim in. Nobody is immune. “Drugs and alcohol affect every family I know,” Campbell told me, “country and city, middle-class and poor, so those human propensities and their effects seem worth investigating.”
And investigate she does, in these fourteen stories, down to the blood and bone.
Another example: “The Inventor, 1972” won the 2009 Eudora Welty Prize for Fiction. Its opening line begins a trajectory of pain and injury: “A rusted El Camino clips the leg of the thirteen-year-old girl, sends her flying through the predawn fog. She lands on the side of the road and lies twisted and alive in the dirty snow.” The man who hit her, “The hunter,” was burned years before in a foundry accident, and
has [even] scared himself a few times when he’s encountered unexpected mirrors. Because he has run out of his prescription ointment, the scar is burning more and tightening, tugging down the skin around his eye, making him feel as monstrous as he must look to a stranger.
It is through this eye, its “lower lid pulled inside out to reveal red flesh like a leech’s,” that we view the girl, whose flesh is fresher, more beautiful than any “promise of painkillers and surgeries.” It is through this eye we view our own repulsion to ugliness. It is through this eye we pass through judgment into a place of tenderness and understanding of what it is to be deformed, dejected, guilt-ridden by bad decisions or—worse—short shrift from a remorseless life. We see how one hunter’s life follows its own course to become nearly hopeless—and how it keeps surviving anyway. And somehow finds, in a memory of adolescence with his friend Ricky, that snow-white thread of joy when he “grabbed one insulated boot and tackled Ricky again. He reached way down the front of Ricky’s jacket this time, down inside his shirt, and pressed a handful of packed snow against that kid’s war skin.”
In an instant, ugliness disappears like mist. And we, like the hunter, regain our hope in the healing powers we ourselves can manufacture from thin air, when there is precious little else left in our foundries and factories manufacture.
The stories in American Salvage are packed tighter than the best snowballs, and fly with excellent arc. But be careful: they sting upon impact and leave a long-lasting bruise. Lucky you’ll be healing even while the sun rises on spring and reignites the stench of Campbell’s community (“my tribe” she calls them), who’ll still be struggling in the pig-penned margins of the country’s—and the world’s—deepening transition into the Information Age.
Incidentally, the one story that was twenty-five years in gestation is “Bringing Belle Home.” But that slow-cooker is balanced out by the capper of the collection, “King Cole’s American Salvage,” which she added just a few weeks before the book went to copyediting, and which provided its memorable title, as well as a final, healing grace after all its beautiful savagery.
The Rumpus Interview with Bonnie Jo Campbell
The Rumpus: Bonnie, congratulations again on American Salvage‘s being named a finalist for the National Book Award. Are you ready for the results?
Bonnie Jo Campbell: Well, if you mean out of my mind, well, yes.
Rumpus: What might any of the fierce, funny, and hardscrabble characters in the collection say about the nomination?
BJC: They would be surprised and impressed that city folks and “rich” folks would take any interest in them. My donkeys [Jack and Don Quixote], on the other hand, have not been impressed at all, or not until I’ve offered them an extra apple.
Rumpus: One of your stories, “Bringing Belle Home,” was more than two decades in the making, while “King Cole’s American Salvage” was written late in the editing process, and after you’d hit upon the book’s true title. What had you uncovered in the collection that brought you to the title American Salvage?
BJC: I wasn’t writing stories with the intention of creating this particular collection. I simply wrote stories, and then discovered common themes among a good number of them. Even so, it took me a while to figure out what the collection was about. I realized that I was writing about folks with lots of skills, especially fix-it skills and survival skills, who were nonetheless not doing well in the new-millennium America.
My characters, most of whom are men in this collection, are working industrial jobs that are being phased out, leaving them in slightly desperate circumstances. In some of the stories, people make money off of actual “salvage” automobiles or building materials. In others, people are trying to salvage what they can of their past lives as they try to move forward into the new century. I also see the word “salvage” as relating to salvation. I’m very interested in the salvation of all these folks, if not in the religious sense (as Flannery O’Connor might have written it) then in the sense of their finding their way back into their communities.
It took me a while to come up with my title, and I wore out all my pals trying out various titles on them. For example, the original title, when Wayne State University Press accepted the collection, was Winter Life, but I knew that was not terribly evocative. Once I came upon the title American Salvage, I knew I had to have a story that justified the title.
Rumpus: You say “communities,” and I recall that each story weighs the cost of loyalty—to friend, lover or family, the crazy neighbor, a way of life, your people’s shared place in the dirt. The men and women of American Salvage often love and hate (each other and themselves) violently, even savagely. How does the rampant drug and alcohol abuse present in the collection fit in?
BJC: As far as I can tell, the drugs and alcohol and the trouble surrounding them is pretty universal—weird, isn’t it, that we discuss it as though it’s an aberration? Drugs and drinking affect every family I know, country and city, middle-class and poor, so those human propensities and their effects seem worth investigating.
Rumpus: You’ve mentioned that you’ve always liked to go to the kind of bars where people get into fights. And that you like to be friends with the kind of people you write about: “low-life types, or poor people, people who are out of the spotlight.” What about this lifestyle, these people compels you? Are you of them?
BJC: Lordy, it’s amazing the things I’ll say. I don’t really even know what low-life means. I do like to go to my local bar, the Tap Room, where there are often fights… I like to go where the life is. I’m pro-life, in the sense that chaos seems like life to me and order seems like death. Yes, of course I’m of the people in the bar and the people in my stories. They are my tribe, though I can’t personally drink or fight too much nowadays because I have to be perky in the morning in order to write.
Rumpus: American Salvage relentlessly pursues the choices people make—and are forced to make when the chips are completely down. Ultimately, they fight for hope. What about your own life brings you to this question?
BJC: I’m not much interested in my own self when I write. I’m interested in what I observe out there, what’s going on around me. I figure that I’m always going to be fine, one way or another, but I do worry about other people who have difficulty moving from one world to the next. It’s the folks who are truly invested in their lives who have the hardest time with change. As a writer, I can live somewhat independently, occupying nooks and crannies and finding meaning there. I can even live in my mind a good portion of most days.
Thank you for using the word “hope.” I ultimately see this book as very hopeful. One reviewer in Detroit wrote, “these stories are prayers,” and I was grateful for that. Some readers have had trouble with the tough situations depicted in the stories… Some people tell me they would be afraid of my characters, but I tell those people [that] they meet these characters all the time. They just don’t care about them when they meet them, at the gas station, the car wash, the post office even. All people in our communities are worth caring about.
Rumpus: What is or has been the hardest or best lesson for you to learn in your writing life?
BJC: The best and easiest lesson for me was to learn that writing is mostly hard work. What a relief that discovery was. Hard work? I can do that. Brilliance and genius? Now, I am not confident about those at all. Maybe the hardest lesson is the one I have to learn over and over again, that each story is its own animal, that every story I write is going to come only with difficulty.
Rumpus: What are you working on now?
BJC: Lots of things. I’m working on a river odyssey novel for Norton, so I guess I’d better finish that. I have a story collection that’s about ready, maybe, and a book of essays called Donkey Basketball. I’m writing some ghost stories and some circus stories. And poems. You can’t beat a good sonnet, and you can write a sonnet without being married to the damned thing.
Rumpus: As Stephen King once asked Amy Tan, is there a question they never ask you that you wish they would?
BJC: Why don’t you ask me something like, “Where’d you get your swell fashion sense?” and I’ll say that it’s called “Donkey Chic,” and I expect that everyone in NYC will be wearing mechanic coveralls by the end of the year.
Instead of “Donkey Chic,” Bonnie Jo Campbell will don a borrowed Gucci frock for the NBA Awards tonight.
Stacy Muszynski’s interview of American Salvage editor Annie Martin, of Wayne State University Press, appears at americanshortfiction.org/blog.