Book Review (Audio): American Salvage, Stories by Bonnie Jo Campbell


American Salvage
Stories by Bonnie Jo Campbell
W.W. Norton and Company
2009
167 pages

Narrated by Jeffrey Brick, Stevie Ray Dallimore, Andrea Gallo, and Ken Marks
6 CDs, 6.5 hours

American Salvage is a collection of 14 short stories that was a finalist for the 2009 National Book Award. All of the stories are set in Michigan, near Kalamazoo or towns close by. (In her acknowledgements, Bonnie Jo Campbell writes “the events and characters depicted in these pages are fictional, but my hometown of Comstock, Michigan, where many of these stories could have taken place, is very real.”)

These are people more than down-on-their-luck; they have, in many cases, been victims of abuse or other crimes. They are meth addicts and alcoholics. In many cases, they are (or were) hard-working and unable to rise above their circumstances, either because of personal fallibles or those of the people in their lives. They’re not all that easy to like, and their stories aren’t easy ones to listen to. 

I think they are important stories, difficult as they are, because these are the stories of so many people on the edges and fringes of society.  These are the stories of the people whom we interact with and encounter in our daily life.  While they might not be identical to those of the people and stories in American Salvage, and their circumstances might be different, there are more people in these types of situations than I think many of us realize (or want to realize). And  with the way the economy is going, there will be more people in these circumstances.

Because of the importance of these stories, I really wished that I liked this collection much more than I did. Still, the characters seemed to blend into each other from one story to another, and at times I honestly had to check and see if I wasn’t repeating myself listening to a story I’d already heard.  Several also ended abruptly; I was listening to this on audio and at times thought something went amiss with the CD.

That’s not to say that there aren’t a few gems in this collection.  I loved “World of Gas” and “Fuel for the Millennium,” which both have the doomsday Y2K preparations as their theme. (They also seem connected.) In “World of Gas,” I really enjoyed the character of Susan and could visualize her so easily because Campbell did a wonderful job of making her character so authentic and vivid. 

Another story worth mentioning is “The Solutions to Brian’s Problem,” which is the matter of Brian’s wife being a meth addict and the ravages of her addiction on himself and their child. The entire story is not even four pages long, but it is one of the most poignantly written ones included in American Salvage and an example of tight, precise, high-impact writing. 

I listened to the audio version of American Salvage and appreciated that there were four different narrators, which alternated from each story.  That made it easy for me to readily identify where I was when I hadn’t been listening for awhile.  At times, there did seem to be slightly longer than usual pauses between sentences, but that only occurred on a few stories and was a characteristic of one narrator as opposed to a consistent issue throughout the production.

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