AMERICAN SALVAGE by Bonnie Jo Campbell

Book Quote:

“Jerry didn’t want to think about credit cards now, seeing how he and his wife were about to go on a weekend vacation. Instead he looked out over the scrubby field scattered with locusts and maples, and dotted with the storage sheds, rusted hulks of defunct cranes, and piles of deteriorating I-beams and concrete blocks. Way up beyond the white pines, out of sight, was the open, hilly land full of bristly mosses, ground birds, deer, and wild turkeys, even.”

Book Review:

Review by Poornima Apte (DEC 4, 2009)

The story of the slow collapse of Michigan’s economy is well known by now. Built around the automotive industry and a core base of manufacturing, the economy started a slow decline as those manufacturing jobs moved out of state. The state now has an astounding unemployment rate of 14.8%.

The characters in American Salvage, a memorable set of short stories nominated for the National Book Award this year, are all victims of the state’s slow decline. The author Bonnie Jo Campbell narrates stories in which some of the characters have taken to meth or alcohol while still others cling on to jobs that don’t pay much.

In “Fuel for the Millennium,” an older Hal Little has stocked up on at least half a dozen fifty-five-gallon blue-plastic drums of gas, in preparation for what he is convinced will be the end of the world, Y2K. He buys into conspiracy theories as way of clinging on to what little he has: “Hal hoped further that accepting both Jesus and the millennium problem would help Americans recognize the way that banks and Jews and the government were plotting together to deny the impending Y2K disaster,” Campbell writes. In the story, Hal meets a younger couple on one of his service repair rounds—customers who don’t buy into his theories. Campbell beautifully brings out the dichotomy of the two mindsets with the story.

In yet another wonderful story, “Yard Man,” Campbell paints the story of a jobless man who spends his time trying to construct something useful out of industrial scrap. His wife, who is from a richer and higher social status, is quickly tiring of putting her dreams on hold, waiting for things to turn around for them.

My favorite story in American Salvage is “The Inventor, 1972,” in which a hunter with a checkered past hits a teenaged girl and works hard for her survival. What the reader slowly finds out in absolutely brilliant writing is that the two are connected to each other by means of an earlier tragic accident.

American Salvage was nominated for the National Book Award this year. Other nominations, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders; and Let the Great World Spin, include books by first-generation Americans of Pakistani and Irish descent respectively. Two of the five books nominated in the fiction category, American Salvage and Lark & Termite, are painted in the America of destitute poverty—its characters are trying their best to eke out an existence despite overwhelming odds.

It is hard not to view this selection of nominations as a snapshot of America now—a country trying to redefine its place on the world stage in the midst of powerful cultural forces. Together, these books show that even if the promise of the American dream remains elusive for many, the nation’s citizens remain gritty and determined as ever.

Back to American Salvage, in the story “The Trespasser,” for example, the smell of meth hangs in the air as a ghost. A teenaged protagonist recognizes the smell: “she has walked through the ghost of this crime and felt its chill—in the hallways of her school, in the aisles of the convenience store, and in the gazes of men and women at the Lake Michigan beach where she and her friends swim,” Campbell writes. Despite this intense hopeless desperation, the characters in American Salvage show amazing courage and a determination to make the best of their circumstances. That they really don’t have much of a choice but to do so, is almost beside the point.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-5from 21 readers
PUBLISHER: W. W. Norton & Company; 1 edition (December 14, 2009)
REVIEWER: Poornima Apte
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Bonnie Jo Campbell
EXTRAS: Reading Guide

Once Upon a River

More books set in Michigan:

Real Life and Liars by Kristina Riggle

Second Hand by Michael Zadoorian


December 4, 2009 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: ,  · Posted in: Class - Race - Gender, National Book Award Finalist, Reading Guide, Short Stories, US Midwest, y Award Winning Author

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