The National Book Award finalists were announced yesterday. I recognized and silently cheered for Colum McCann (full disclosure: I used to work for Random House). I scratched my head a bit over David Small being in the “Young People’s” category (such a dark, strange and beautiful graphic novel, but hey, what isn’t dark and strange and altogether beautiful about being a teenager?)
And then I got to Bonnie Jo Campbell.
You know the feeling you get when you’ve got a song stuck in your head and can’t quite remember the tune? Or when you’re in a conversation at a party, and can’t place the person next to you? Tip of the tongue phenomena (or if you’re like me, call it the what was his name/what was that state/I swear I know the next verse in that Christina Aguilera song phenomena).
I could have googled Bonnie Jo Campbell, but I didn’t. “I know this name from somewhere,” I tormented myself all day, “how do I know her?” It wasn’t until late in the evening that it came to me.
Bonnie Jo Campbell—the dark horse in this book race (as websites have been referring to her)—is the author of a superb collection of short stories called American Salvage. As a student in a MFA program, I couldn’t be more thrilled to see a collection of short stories up for the award. Her collection, published by Wayne State University Press, is filled with a wild group of characters that hurt your heart to read about. (Bonnie Jo, I may have forgotten your name, but no, I did not forget your stories.)
I took American Salvage with me on a road trip to North Carolina; very few books could tear me away from such fine barbeque. (If you’re down near Durham, I highly recommend the pulled pork sandwich at Allen & Son.) Slaw and pickles spread out around me, I dove into her world of beekeepers, gas men, kings of scrap yards and impossible storms. Her people come from Anytown, USA, and that’s what makes them so likeable: you feel like as if they’re from your very own town. At the same time, her characters are terrifying: girls who shoot up in front of their babies and men who hit their spouses in a packed bar. Her stories are car wrecks: you can’t tear your eyes away from them.
I’ll finish with one of her images (no spoiler alerts here): a girl, crumpled in the snow by a car accident, the narrator observing: “her heart deflates. She has long imagined her future spreading out before her, gloriously full of love and discovery; she has been waiting for the future to arrive like a plate full of fancy appetizers in a restaurant, like a lush bunch of roses placed in her arms, like the biggest birthday cake with the brightest candles, baked and lit by people who love her.”
Congrats to Ms. Campbell and all the others for their nominations.