Monday, March 21, 2011

Fiction Review: "World of Gas," Bonnie Jo Campbell

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

This selection from Bonnie Jo Campbell’s celebrated American Salvage collection tells of a single working mother taking all comers. Along the way, it also offers a tartly funny view of Y2K silliness and masculine folly, all grounded in the universals of everyday adult dilemmas.

One could easily denounce Bonnie Jo Campbell’s short story “World of Gas” as misandrist, but doing so would only betray one's humorlessness. Campbell’s stunning eye for social and character detail are on fine display: the story’s sketches of men as irresponsible and folly-minded ring unerringly true. It’s outright male-bashing, but it had me laughing from one end of the story to the other. The laughter Campbell prompts is one of recognition; I challenge any male reader to go through this story and not see shades of the dumbassery on display in himself. But one will also find an identification that goes beyond gender humor and into the universal.

“World of Gas” is told through the eyes of Susan, a single mother of three, probably about 40, who manages a propane supply company in rural Michigan. (I see Frozen River’s Melissa Leo playing her in the movie version.) The time is the latter months of 1999, and the company is getting a good deal of business from Y2K freaks--people who saw the alleged possibility of a worldwide mass computer crash on January 1, 2000 as an impetus to begin living out their apocalyptic survivalist fantasies. Susan is beleaguered on all ends. Not only does she have to manage the installation and maintenance issues for a bunch of yahoos who are likely to blow themselves up, she also has to deal with issues on the home front. Her ex-husband has effectively abandoned their three sons, which leaves it to her to contend with the eldest’s growing incorrigibility. The story is a day-in-the-life portrait, so her problems aren't resolved, but Campbell effectively builds the material to an ironic epiphany. About it, I’ll just say the Y2K calamity might have had its benefits.

Along the way, the reader is treated to one moment after another of hilariously rude rejoinders. Susan has thoughts of retaliation against the unhelpful vice-principal of her eldest son’s high school. She mockingly berates the militia-member buyer of a massive fuel tank (“Try not to let any of your drunk buddies drive into it”), while feeling sorry for his wife (“now that he was preparing for Y2K, Mack had gotten hold of a 550-gallon diesel tank that lay like a big yellow turd under Holly’s clotheslines”). When she finds her 15-year-old in bed with his girlfriend, she gets hit with the but-I-love-her defense. She responds with the stock If-you-love-her-why risk-getting-her-pregnant, but her aside to herself is a beauty: “if this girl means so much to you, then why don’t you turn off the damned TV when you’re in bed with her?” And Susan’s thoughts on the survivalist Y2K nonsense are priceless:

It occurred to Susan that men were always waiting for something cataclysmic—-ove or war or a giant asteroid. Every man wanted to be a hot-headed Bruce Willis character, fighting against the evil foreign army while despising the domestic bureaucracy. Men wanted to focus on just one big thing, leaving the thousands of smaller messes for the women around them to clean up.

Susan highlights the bull in all the nonsense that crosses her path; it’s both bracing and bracingly funny.

The story, though, is more than just a collection of wryly funny responses to the aggravations of masculine idiocy. Besides being a dead-on portrait of its time and place, it also captures the frustrations of someone doing his or her best to be competent and responsible, only to feel surrounded by fools. There is also its evocation of being stuck with the sense that cooperation and respect for one’s efforts are nowhere to be found. It’s a situation that confronts people of both genders. That universality may also contribute to why the story’s anti-male broadsides aren’t off-putting. Campbell’s caricatures have their smaller harmonies, but their discords are no match for the more profound harmony that lies beneath.

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