Bonnie Jo Campbell’s American Salvage (W.W. Norton & Company, 2009) isn’t exactly a pleasant read; it doesn’t sugarcoat the struggles of poverty, addiction and abuse ravaging rural America—and neither does it skimp on the dissatisfaction, loneliness and tragedy that follow alongside. Most of Campbell’s characters aren’t people you would want to be, or even spend time with, but through the fourteen short stories collected in American Salvage, they come to be people you understand. And that’s what makes her work at once moving and important: the reconciliation of the systemic struggle with the human experience.
A finalist for the 2009 National Book Award in Fiction, American Salvage’s stories are gritty and disturbing—three of them feature gruesome, life-threatening accidents—but Campbell doesn’t fetishize or exploit them. What’s interesting is not that these Midwestern characters are drug-addicted, but how their addiction is indicative of systemic issues—and what that means for the individual human beings affected by these layers of entrenched social issues. Though each of the stories is short, Campbell’s specificity ensures that you understand the characters within a few paragraphs; you can imagine their past, hopes, and dreams within a page.
Campbell took inspiration for the landscape and her characters from her own childhood. After living in various parts of the country, she settled back into her hometown of Kalamazoo, Michigan, where she grew up on a small farm with people much like the characters in her book.
In some stories, Campbell specifies that we are in Kalamazoo, but other stories could take place in any rural town in America. What is sure in all is that the landscape is rural, vivid and integral to the story; it paints the background for the characters’ dissatisfaction, embodying a disconnect between the natural world and the dying world of manufacturing that most of Campbell’s characters inhabit.
In “Yard Man,” Campbell writes, “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.”
The landscape, with all its conflict of old and new, life and death, growth and deterioration, seems to be inextricably tied to the lives of the people Campbell writes about.
“The natural world is the place into which all my characters have to situate themselves in order to be who they really are, and that makes my rural fiction feel different from a lot of urban fiction,” Campbell said in a 2019 interview with Arkana.
Campbell suspects the reason that this kind of fiction, called rural noir, was so popular when her book came out in 2009 was because it detailed the decay of rural Michigan right before the rest of the country went into a recession: “My work about what has been happening in Michigan for a while suddenly seemed relevant to what was going on everywhere,” she said in a 2012 interview with TriQuarterly.
As a consequence, the characters in American Salvage, and all of Campbell’s stories, search for unique ways to survive.
“I am interested in characters whose survival is at risk. A few people give me a hard time for always writing about poor and distraught people, but in my family and my community it was always a point of pride to call someone a survivor,” Campbell said in the TriQuarterly interview.
The struggle for survival shows itself not only in the stories, but also in their forms; Campbell doesn’t confine herself to traditional storytelling in order to express the depth of experience in her characters. One story, “The Solutions to Brian’s Problem,” only four pages long, is simply a list of Brian’s possible paths to handle his meth-addicted wife and their baby boy.
Perhaps the best story of survival is the book’s namesake, “King Coles’ American Salvage,” which follows a man named Slocum, 11 months out of prison, who batters the owner of a salvage yard in pursuit of money to pay for his girlfriend’s meth addiction. In a way, he’s looking to save himself in the process: “Slocum stared at her as though she were a life raft out of his reach and drifting farther and farther from him in the water.”
The theme of “salvage,” however, isn’t confined to the story itself; throughout the story and book we see the political and cultural struggles of a population grappling with changing labor dynamics and foreign outsourcing. For example, King refuses to dismantle parts from foreign cars, gesturing to the devastation of the loss of manufacturing jobs in the Midwest to foreign competition.
This is what Michigan native Edward McClelland describes as the dissolution of “patriotic consumerism” since the 1990s.
Since 1991, “American brands’ share of U.S. auto sales has fallen from 70.5 percent to 45 percent. Michigan has suffered most from car buyers’ turn away from patriotic consumerism: In the 2000s, remembered here as ‘The Lost Decade,’ its per capita income dropped from 18th to 37th, and it was the only state to lose people, its industrial disaster proving even more depopulating than the natural disaster in Louisiana,” he wrote in a 2015 Washington Post article.
The decline has eviscerated the Auto Workers Union, which in its heyday had 1.5 million members, but in 2015 had only 400,000. Foreign competition has led to leaner benefits and wages for workers.
The loss of stable jobs has been devastating for many Midwesterners like King. But in a way, his refusal to adapt to changing times leads to his attack; the man that beats him wants revenge because King only gave him a lowball $70 for his car parts because it was Japanese-made.
And American Salvage doesn’t stop at dissecting the insecurities and harsh realities of a changing auto industry. The short stories reveal a deeply entrenched fear—of change, of the “foreign” and of, in some ways, progress. Two stories even feature Y2K conspiracy theorists who are set on stocking up on gasoline for when the millennium turns, banks stop, the Russian and Chinese invade and gas is unavailable.
“You might say the stories in American Salvage are making the case that not all Americans are on the same page heading into the twenty-first century. It’s as though there was some kind of apocalypse and nobody noticed, and now a large number of folks are living off the debris that’s left behind,” Campbell said in an interview with the Kenyon Review.
As wild as some of the fears may be, Campbell’s characters show us there are two (or more) sides of every story, and that the rural America we see today—with all its insecurities, politics and stubbornness—is truly a result of compounded and long-standing struggle. The second story, “The Yard Man,” focuses on a man who doesn’t mind his simple life, even though his house is disheveled and his hours as the school janitor just got cut. He performs maintenance on an old woman’s land, sees buildings being torn down and is sure that once the old woman dies, new developers will come in. Throughout the story, he nurses an obsession with a brilliant orange snake. And at the end, he finally voices his biggest fear, projecting onto the snake: “I just wonder, what if he’s the last of his kind?”
Though most of Campbell’s stories are focused on men, Campbell certainly doesn’t shy away from revealing their weaknesses. She brilliantly invades the male psyche, exploring loneliness, self-consciousness, an unwillingness to be vulnerable in front of other people and a constantly-simmering dissatisfaction.
“The Inventor, 1972” is the most emotional story, and also one that embodies this dissatisfaction. It starts with a hunter hitting a girl with his truck, leaving her bleeding in the snow while he looks for help. He describes his hitting the girl as the first real excitement he’s felt in a while—thinking it was a deer, he was looking forward to bringing the animal home to his disapproving father. But this is just the final blow; single and burned out from his factory work, he’s frustrated by the loss of manufacturing jobs and even more frustrated that despite all the talk of “American progress,” there is still so much suffering.
“If the foundry, where he worked above vats of molten steel for sixteen years, has become obsolete, then shouldn’t the world outside the foundry be noticeably more advanced? He had intended to work at the foundry forever (his burns were a pact the foundry made with him), but they disassembled and dissected the equipment with torches and sold it as scrap iron in a world unprepared to reshape those materials into advanced medical machinery,” Campbell writes.
Like countless others, the hunter lost his job in the name of technological progress, without reaping the fruits of that progress. Without his job and without a woman to protect, the hunter does not have much to rely on. Other men in the book exploit women, fixate on them and pretend to be their saviors, but they also have some moments of compassion, vulnerability and love—a conflict between ongoing outward circumstance and redemptive moments of humanity we see throughout all 14 stories.
In the end, while laying bare all the ugliness and pain of this rural reality, the message of the book is that no matter how burned, bruised and damaged, there’s something salvageable from the rubble.