American Salvage - Analysis of Bonnie Jo Campbell’s writing technique
In one of his few interviews with The New York Times, Cormac McCarthy the writer of Blood Meridian, No Country for Old Men, and The Road, said that he wasn’t a fan of authors who didn’t deal with issues of life and death. “Proust and Henry James don’t make the cut. I don’t understand them,” he said. “To me, that’s not literature. A lot of writers who are considered good I consider strange.”
To craft a good short story, a story that will not be robbed of its color, one couldn’t but agree with the words spoken by one of the best contemporary American writers. How could we appreciate life without death, light without darkness? How could we understand happiness and joy, without sadness and hate, without love? How could we live our lives completely, clearly, and full-heartedly without myths, well-told tales, and short stories?
Bonnie Jo Campbell understands the above statement. Born and raised in Kalamazoo, Michigan, she is a writer with a confident and honest voice that gave birth to fourteen tender and tough short stories that deal with uncomfortable truths of the human spirit entitled American Salvage. The collection was a finalist for the 2009 National Book Award in Fiction, one of the most prestigious literary honors in the United States.
The Trespasser, The Inventor 1972, The World of Gas, Family Reunion, Bringing Belle Home, and King Cole’s American Salvage are titles peopled with white meth addicts, lonely bigots, self-destructive and passive remnants of the long-lost American dream. Her characters are people who fear but dare, extravagantly, who hate but love, wastefully, and who haven’t worked out yet how to squirm out of the post-industrial metallic grip. Yet some of her characters are farmers, lovers of wilderness and gardens, snakes and ermines, protective and proud parents, and teens with courageous spirits.
Apart from the lyricism and truthfulness of Ernest Hemingway, the rawness and economy of Charles Bukowski, and the simplicity and depth of Raymond Carver, Campbell’s writing is tinged with, she has got her unique style.
In Bringing Belle Home (p.97), a story about an inability of a woman and a man to live together, because of their haunting past, Campbell writes. “…Belle swung around again and threw a glass ashtray across the room at Thomssen. Ashes and cigarette butts fell over the trajectory, and Thomssen caught it as it hit his chest, although it knocked a puff of smoke out of his lungs and would undoubtedly leave a bruise. He extinguished his cigarette in the new ashtray and found that he felt inexplicably cheerful afterward.”
“You want a drink, honey?” Thomssen called to her across the bar.
“Fuck you, old man,” Belle said.
“Pete,” Thomssen said when the bartender returned. “Pete, give old Mrs. Thomssen a drink.”
The bartender raised his eyebrows…”
Campbell’s passage is clean and uncluttered from any unnecessary words. She shies away from cheap tricks or pseudo-poetic and pompous language, which usually appeals more to the reader’s intellect than to their hearts and spirits.
She doesn’t beat about the bush. Her opening lines weld the eyes together with the words. By the end of the first paragraph or page, Campbell’s point of view, place, setting, time, main characters, and dilemmas are all in the right place. Through two different points of view, the first and the third person, both limited and omniscient, Campbell establishes a mesmerizing narrative voice.
The Inventor, 1972 (p.39), a thirteen-year-old girl gets hit by the rusty car by a hunter who was a good friend of her long-dead and beloved uncle, Ricky. “A rusted El Camino clips the leg of the thirteen-year-old girl and sends her flying through the predawn fog. She lands on the side of the road and lies twisted and alive in the dirty snow. Before the pain gathers its strength, the girl sees how her leg looks wrong against the asphalt.”
In Bringing Belle Home (p.92), Campbell writes. “A man who trusted himself to own a gun could walk into this place and shoot these guys, one after another, watch the glass fly: Jack Daniels, Jim Beam, Yukon Jack, Johnny Walker Red.”
And in King Cole’s American Salvage (p.114), a story about Slocum, a meth user who beats Cole with a pipe and then robs him, the narrator says. “On a windy evening in February, William Slocum Jr., eleven months out of prison, pulled into Kings Cole’s driveway in a Jeep he’d stolen from an apartment complex near his girlfriend’s house.”
Starting a story with a strong opening, Campbell coaxes her readers into the strange and dark world of her characters and makes them lose the sense of their reality and experience something different, unique, and something that might evoke in them emotions they didn’t know existed.
Campbell’s literary toolbox is well-polished. To keep the readers tuned in the mood of her story, not only does she know how to juxtapose situations, but she also knows when and where to place her characters, and how to bring them to life by using characterization, dialogue, narrative distance, and when and how to speed up or slow down time.
In The Inventor, 1972, Campbell’s cinematic eye registers. “A car door slams. “A broad-chested man in camouflage approaches and drops to one knee.” A couple of lines ahead we read. “Her heart pounds as he leans close, pounds harder when she’s seen the other side of his face, the scar, chin to temple, edged in white, a swath of flesh so raw looking it seems as though it might melt and drip on her. She cannot back away, so she wishes momentarily to die or at least to faint. The hunter rests a shaking hand on his knee, and she sees the flesh is similarly mottled on the back of that hand, as though the skin has liquefied and frozen.”
In the above paragraph to bring about the desired emotional and psychological effect, Campbell uses narrative distance majestically. We go from the metallic sound of the car door to the girl’s pounding heart, her wishing to die, for what she sees appears or feels to her worse than her accident and the splendid detail of the hunter’s shaking hand.
In Family Reunion (p.76), a story about a teenage girl, Marylou, a hunter, who lives with her father, Strong, and who has been raped by her uncle, Cal, Campbell writes. “She reaches up and inserts the knife about a half-inch, just below the sternum. Pulling down hard and steady on the back of the blade with her free hand, she unzips the buck from chest to balls, tears through skin and flesh, and then closes her eyes for a moment to recover.”
Before the story ends the narrator says, “Those little kids were two girls and a boy, and Marylou thinks she knows what they show, what scared them: they saw Cal had opened up Marylou and was gutting her there like a deer on the plank floor.”
Campbell’s juxtaposing Marylou’s rape to the opening up of a buck with the back of the blade is masterful. If she had chosen a different setting, and given her characters another lifestyle, the rape wouldn’t have felt as disturbingly raw as it did.
Now, let’s move on to how Campbell uses dialogue. Her characters don’t talk just to have a conversation. They pass on information relevant to the story. Good writers usually never get stuck in dialogue marathons. Campbell’s dialogues speak for themselves.
In the World of Gas (p.33), a story that tells the fear that gripped people months before the change of the millennium, Susan, an office manager is talking on the phone to the vice principal of a school about her oldest son, Josh, who was being kicked out of school for fighting.
“Well, I’m at work all day. I can’t watch him.”
“What about his father?”
“What about his father?”
“Somebody’s asking for you,” whispered Darcy, Susan’s assistant.
The dialogue is free of tugs like said, asked, and, without going into the why’s, whens’s, and the berceuse’s, she reveals details about the characters’ lives.
In Bringing Belle Home (p.99), Campbell writes.
“I want us to be happy,” she said, further loosening his grip.
She relaxed her body and took a long drag from her cigarette. She let it out with a sigh. “People like us aren’t happy, Thomssen. I’m a drug addict, and you’re a mean fucking drunk.”
And later on, in the story (p.100), the narrator tells us.
“We belong together, Belle.”
“We’re both assholes,” she said. “You think you’re not an asshole because you go to work in the morning and pay the bills, but you’re as bad as me.”
“We can change.”
“With love. If we love each other enough.”
Bonnie Jo Campbell’s dialogues are sharp, solid, and strong, always having something important to say, always moving the story forward, and never stalling. In the middle of the story, Campbell’s pen enjoys a shifting point of view and readers might not notice the change for she does it gracefully.
In Falling (p.108), Campbell writes. “I didn’t tell the guy nothing,” Jonas says tiredly, as though he is not making friends in the psych ward is some new kind of failure piled on of failing to kill himself and failing to want to live. “When we hear the side door of the garage open, we both look over and see Robert.”
Campbell might get away with the changing point of view because the story is told in the present tense, which might have something to do with the smooth changing of viewpoint.
Even when she uses similes, Campbell does it constructively, always adding information about her characters in her stories creating richer and tighter prose. In The Yard Man (p.5), she writes. “The snake’s body is as thick as his stepson’s arm” or “strangely, the blue of his wife’s eyes - and the shiny coils of the snake suggested his wife’s coppery hair.”
Another of Campbell’s characteristics is the way she handles the back story without which a story would be decapitated. She salvages broken-down pieces from the character’s pasts and consistently brings them up in the story between dialogues, paragraphs, and sum-ups, thus keeping the readers tuned in the story.
Trespasser (p.4), is a story about a teenage girl who breaks into a cottage, pretends it’s hers, lives there a week, shoots meth, and gets ganged raped by three men. The teenage daughter, of the family who owns the house, after “inhaling the scent of the crime” calls out the word “Mommy!” Behind the word “…a term the teenaged daughter hasn’t used in years,” in our minds another story unfolds of what kind of a relationship the girl and her parents had.
Let’s shift our attention to the other side of the literary coin. Even though many of Campbell’s characters are meth addicts, she never shows us how they shoot or smoke meth, as William Borrows does in Junky or as Hunter S. Thompson does in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
In King Cole’s American Salvage (p.118), there is a scene where Slocum gives a tinfoil package of meth to his girlfriend Wanda. “Something is shining here,” she said cheerfully and patted the couch, inviting Slocum to sit beside her. “Shall we smoke it, my dear? Or shall we shoot it?” Campbell writes, however, we never see or feel how meth addicts use the drug, as we do, in the same story, how Slocum hits King Cole on the head with a pipe (p.116). “Slocum moved in. He swung the pipe and hit Cole above the ear, resulting in a dull cracking sound.”
Further down we read. “…and he closed his eyes and hit Cole again. The impact made a duller and wetter sound this time, and it knocked Cole down on the truck’s running board.” Campbell makes our hearts ache particularly with the words “duller and wetter sound.” While in the same scene, Campbell injects fluid of opposing forces into the veins of her stories, smoothly, enhancing the shadows and shades, colors and hues, and balancing out the tough and the tender in her scenes.
She writes. “Slocum thought of Wanda’s green eyes and her milky skin and the way her arms and legs wrapped around him, how she always had something funny to say, and he hit King Cole a third, a fourth, and a fifth time. King fell into the snow and lay still. Blood…” As we experience this violent scene, she makes Slocum think of Wanda’s softness, thus creating a mellower mood. By slacking her literary thread, Campbell skilfully pulls us out of that hard moment and gives us a breather before she pulls her thread again.
Another thing readers might notice, and wonder is why Bonnie Jon Campbell mentions brand names in her stories.
In Winter Life (p.89), Campbell writes. “This morning Pauline was wearing her arctic-weight Carhart instead of that flimsy leather jacket she’d worn to the bar.”
In The Burn (p.57),she mentions a new Ford, a hard pack of Marlboros (page 62), Jim’s newest pair of Levis, a new Ford,and (p.64), Vicodin an opioid pain reliever.
In Bringing Belle Home, “...watch the glass fly…Jack Daniels, Jim Beam, Yukon Jack, Johnny Walker Red.” Perhaps Campbell wanted to put a strong emphasis on all things American or she might have felt that those brands’ names would create more vivid images, however, she could have refrained from using them.
In addition, many of her characters don’t change. They stay static or passive instead of active. Yet the endings are similarly intriguing as her openings are and manage to leave the readers, either with a sense of epiphany or revelation (as in Chekov’s and Carver’s stories), or rouse in them a sense of wonder and anticipation of what was, what is or what might be, thus, creating in them a lingering emotion of mystery and mystique or even dread.
In The Trespasser (p.49), the narrator says. “The dream that scares her away over and over is the dream of entering a stranger’s bedroom – only it’s her own – and encountering there her own body, waiting.”
In Bringing Belle Home (p.106), Campbell writes. “Once inside, she’d turn up the heat, sit and hug herself on the couch, hanker in the nest of whatever blankets were within reach, huddle like a creature not quite human, a member of a doomed species, who know safety and warmth are always temporary.”
In Family Reunion (p.83), her pen writes. “She has to do this thing for herself; nobody is going to do it for her. She aims just past his thumb. She knows she is good enough to take off the tip of his pecker without hitting any other part of him. The shout of the rifle is followed by a silent splash of blood on the shed wall and one last horseshoe clink from the pit.”
Further down Campbell’s sharp pen writes. “Cal’s mouth is open in a scream, but it must be discernible only by hunting dogs.” The finale of the story felt like a splash of bright morning sunshine on my face.
Despite the graphic scenes of violence, betrayal, dishonesty, and cowardliness, I sense a quality of romanticism tracing Campbell’s characters and hope against hope as they walk through rain and shine doing what we all do to smooth out the curved edges of time.
The long and the short of it, Bonnie Jo Campbell cares about the words, dearly. She looks at everyday things with clear and sharp eyes, eyes that look right into the heart of all things. Then she picks up the right details of reality, dusts them down, holds them up against the light, and discovers in them new truths, new secrets, and new awakenings.
Campbell cares deeply about her craft. She has a keen eye for detail and an ability to see the beauty and truth in everyday things. Her writing is a testament to her skill at dusting off those details, examining them in the light, and uncovering new truths, secrets, and awakenings. With her clear and sharp vision, Campbell has created a literary legacy that is both timeless and unforgettable.
American Salvage is a collection of short stories that offer a genuine and immersive glimpse into the lives of everyday people. With her inquisitive pen, Bonnie Jo Campbell has skillfully crafted stories that leave a strong and unique signature on the literary map of the twenty-first century. Each tale is a journey that invites readers to experience the complex and often raw emotions of her characters, making for a powerful and unforgettable reading experience.
“That’s all we have, finally, the words, and they better be the right ones, with the punctuation in the right places so that they can best say what they are meant to say,” wrote Raymond Carver in his essay entitled On Writing (p.730).