American Salvage

Bonnie Jo Campbell’s short story collection titled American Salvage recently caught my attention because a friend of many years and few actual visits recently drove me through rural Michigan where many of the stories take place. My friend Irene (not her real name) is a social worker who’s patrolled this Lake Michigan segment almost straight west from Kalamazoo. It’s scrubby land, dotted with small houses, so small that in South Carolina where I grew up, we’d call them shacks. The land is good for growing blueberries and cranberries in bogs, and for boiling meth.

It’s been almost twenty years since Irene and I saw each other. That previous visit we met at the Art Institute of Chicago. She took the train down from Kalamazoo, the same train that’s brought me up from Union Station and will take me back. I was staying near Chicago at Ragdale, lucky to have several weeks of a writing residency. It’s one thing to meet among marble pillars and Impressionist paintings, the clink of glassware and buzz of art talk; quite another to roll along through depressed territory, with Irene telling the fates of families boiled in meth.

I’ve occasionally had a college writing student trying to kick an addiction to meth. It’s evidently one of the hardest addictions to shake because the high that comes from ingesting methamphetamine increases libido, boots performance of all kinds, and bestows boundless confidence. Yet over time, it leads to psychosis, bad teeth (sort of laughable after psychosis) and other problems. I remember my students looking worn down, probably from constant highs which didn’t allow them to rest. American Salvage as a title suggests salvaging a life after such extremes, but it also suggests that these people are like metal salvage littering yards along such stretches of two-lane road–hoping someone or something would come along and find a use for them.

Irene told how meth addiction affects several generations, a parent becoming addicted, losing jobs, spouses, but stuck with children who grow up in the corners of rooms, subsisting on potato chips and pop, watching a parent run ragged into despair, hallucinations, and eventual collapse. After such a childhood, one’s rather disconnected except to pop and chips, the only sure things in a wasted world.

This reminds me of the dirt-poor, share cropping families James Agee so eloquently and famously depicted in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, their possessions so few as to create iconic images in Walker Evans’ photographs, the women worn out by 30, the men haggard or if still handsome, yet with a hunted look in their eyes. With so little and no hope of anything else, it was the rare one who grew up to other forms of possibility.

If current conditions are any clue, we will be looking at a lot more families reduced to this kind of rural poverty, subsisting if not on bread and molasses, then on pop and chips. According to my Michigan friend Irene, Bonnie Jo Campbell treats the meth families of Michigan with humor and realism. I have to read her book.

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