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by Bonnie Jo Campbell
Reviewed by Jana Herlander

The stories of Bonnie Jo Campbell go deep into America, past the stereotypes the world is familiar with, past the romance of ideals we have with our own culture, to a place that is raw and rough, where hope is a impermanent thing and dreams require courage to have.

The fourteen stories in American Salvage are set generally in rural Michigan. They have no tangible connection beyond general setting, and are not connected in the way that, say, the stories in Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout or those in In Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Daniel Mueenuddin are, but they are connected more deeply, perhaps. There's a kind of lifeblood that runs through all these stories.

The title of the collection is taken from the story "King Cole's American Salvage," a redemptive story of a young man who foolishly, while drinking, gives another young man information that will result in a brutal assault on his uncle Cole. Cole runs a salvage or junk yard where old and wrecked automobiles are taken apart for their usable parts and salvageable metals. King Cole doesn't trust the banks and keeps much of his money on his person.

"The Solutions to Brian's Problem" presents, numbered, Brian's seven possible solutions to his problem ‒ he is married to Connie, a meth addict, and it is complicated by the fact that they have an infant son. His solutions range from the desperate to the sensible. "Solution #2: Wait until Connie comes back from the 'store,' distract her with the baby, and then cut her meth with Drano...."

In "Family Reunion", a story I found particularly reminiscent of some of Joyce Carol Oates's short fiction, something happened a year ago at the family reunion and Strong, Marylou's dad, no longer has anything to do with his brother's family on the other side of the river. The teenaged Marylou, a crack shot with a rifle, deals with the aftermath of what happened by shooting deer—more than are permitted during any one hunting season, and certainly more than they can store in their freezer. Until this year's family reunion, that is.

And those are just three of the stories. In many of these stories, some very noticeable thing happens at the beginning which serves to launch and carry the story forward: an invitation is discovered on a tree, a man sees an unusual orange snake, a rusted-El Camino clips the leg of a young girl, an advertisement for a $25 boar hog is pulled off a bulletin board, or a man stops to buy two gallons of gasoline and spills some.

Bonnie Jo Campbell's collection was a finalist for the National Book Award this past year and one can clearly see why. It is a strong, even collection of subtly powerful stories populated by organic characters who the reader can't quite forget. The stories are both tragic and yet hopeful, painfully observed yet not oppressive and there is something in all of them that resonates with the reader, something that stays with you long after you have turned the last page.