In her debut collection, Women and Other Animals, Bonnie Jo Campbell takes a steel-eyed look at the human as car wreck. A giant, coarse-faced carnival worker gets used up at night by men who turn away from her in horror the next morning. A 500-pound Waffle House cook becomes trapped in her caved-in porch, wailing as her stepchildren stand around eating her secret stash of fatty groceries. The inbred residents of asbestos-shingled wood shacks look on as a farmer takes his shotgun down the hill and puts an errant horse, mired hopelessly in mud, out of its misery. In this last story, “Celery Fields,” a witnessing girl wakes “into the nightmare that the man wasn’t even trying to save the creature, and that people up the ridge were cruel and stupid.” The best passages of this collection, set in and around the small towns of Michigan, crystallize such moments, when benumbed everyday routine is briefly jolted by dizzy instants of brutal lucidity.
Campbell shows little interest in either redemption or debasement, despite raw material that borders on the grotesque, and none of her characters ever bother playing martyr. Everyone eats and drinks and smokes too much; sex is something to get over with. Available jobs are mall security guard or the line at the plastics factory, which is “kind of like dying and going to hell five days a week,” as a blowsy mom puts it in “The Perfect Lawn.” Possibilities flicker from afar, remain unclaimed by action, and die out. What’s left is a yawning darkness, physically manifested in “Eating Aunt Victoria” by Bess, who “had felt hungry since she could remember, an endless, gnawing, empty feeling stretching in all directions.”
Campbell doesn’t condescend to her hard-luck characters, but she confuses compassion with solemnity. There’s nary a joke cracked in the whole book—little of the humor that can, at once, lay pain bare and act as its balm. Campbell’s stories are wise and true, but what’s stubbornly missing is any promise that a life, however battered and misshapen by inert circumstance, can be reclaimed.