Tales Of Michigan Full Of Despair, Life

In her new short-story collection, American Salvage, Bonnie Jo Campbell looks at working-class life in Michigan. Reviewer Alan Cheuse says both roughness and beauty can be found in Campbell's stories about cold, meth-drenched small towns.

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NOAH ADAMS, host:

From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Noah Adams.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Michigan has been one of the hardest-hit states in the economic downturn. The unemployment rate there right now is 15 percent. And it is among Michigan's struggling working class that Bonnie Jo Campbell sets her new book of short stories. It's called "American Salvage."

Alan Cheuse has this review.

ALAN CHEUSE: Campbell sets most of her stories in a small Michigan town that's been saturated with methamphetamine, a place suffering from a declining Rust Belt economy and all of the usual small-town modern pains: loss of love, splintered families, despair about the future.

Even the happy families, such as that of the yard man, Jerry, and his wife, Natalie, must fight off assaults from invading nature, from ermines to bees to snakes. Jerry can't sleep because of a hole in the baseboard of their bedroom. He's afraid that anything could move into that empty space and lurk there.

That worry turns up in many of the other stories. In "King Cole's American Salvage," an ex-con named William Slocum, Jr. holds up an auto salvage yard owner, beating him nearly to death, all so he can buy his beloved girlfriend, Wanda some meth - to keep herself going, we hear, since she'd lost her job.

In one of the most chilling passages in recent fiction, Slocum presents his girl with a wad of blood-spattered cash.

Campbell writes: Here's your house payment, babe. Look at you, Wanda says, but she was looking at the money. With two fingers, she lifted a $50 bill from the stack and held it away from herself. Willie, this money's covered with blood. Sorry about that. Slocum looked at his hands, which were also covered with blood. We can wash it in the sink, Wanda said.

What these people do to each other can't be washed away. But in these stories about cold, lonely, meth-drenched, modern, working-class, small-town Michigan life, there's a roughness and even beauty.

Few of the stories have endings that seem resolved. Because of their despairing feel and their shape and form, they seem quite lifelike, all too real.

BLOCK: The book of short stories is called "American Salvage" by Bonnie Jo Campbell. Our reviewer is Alan Cheuse. And Alan's latest book is "A Trance After Breakfast."

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