by Steven Dunn
120 pages, Tarpaulin Sky Press, 2016
Steven Dunn’s debut novel, Potted Meat (Tarpaulin Sky Press, August 2016), tells the story of a young boy growing up in an abusive home in a West Virginia town lush with decay, following him into adolescence as he navigates a harrowing maze of poverty, violence, substance abuse, and racial tensions amid a backdrop that is as ragged as it is vibrant, as beautiful as it is destitute, and as intoxicating as it is dangerous. Much like Sandra Cisneros’ famous coming-of-age novel-in-vignettes, The House on Mango Street (a text Dunn counts among his book’s many influences), Potted Meat embraces the isolated, distilled moment for its ability to allow the reader to embody the child protagonist’s experience with a singular and searing physical intensity. The novel’s fragmented format and blunt sentences set the vivid details and rules that compose the young narrator’s visceral and powerless world against the shrouded silences of all that he does not understand—until each relived memory contracts, expands briefly, and then contracts again like “lightning bugs…blinking in the black.” As his child’s eye brushes against these ruptures between what is seen on the surface and what lies hidden beneath, the results are often harrowing and traumatic; but over time, his vision slowly expands to encompass more and more of his world, its full range of beauty and ugliness laid bare.
In an interview for Full Stop, Dunn states that “ I prefer the other definitions of plot, like a burial plot or garden plot: a space to excavate, grieve, cultivate, construct, or whatever types of work has to be done there.”[i] And indeed, this desire—to excavate, to expose, to embody the hidden spaces—is perhaps the central driving force of Potted Meat, manifesting both in the novel’s larger structure and within its fragmented depictions . In “Dust,” for example, one of the book’s earlier vignettes, we are told that the narrator’s mother and stepfather move the family into his stepfather’s mother’s house. The house is then described in short, flat sentences punctuated by a repetition that feels bleak and inescapable: “The house is built on the side of a hill. The house is leaning. The house has a kitchen floor that is slanted with the tops of nails pushing through brown linoleum. The house has a basement with a coal furnace.” It is, we learn, the narrator’s job to keep the coal furnace running, a task at which he repeatedly fails. Sent to relight the extinguished fire, he goes to the abandoned house next door to scavenge for dry wood: “With the axe I chop brittle walls, Kick through walls, chop up the floor. Awake the rats. Their nest is tangled straw, sticks, and dry leaves. In it is chewed up Bible pages. Empty can of potted meat. Cracked pork chop bones. Half-eaten Barbie head.” The rat’s nest is a mélange of human and natural detritus. Religion, food, and play—the tenets of survival for one species usurped, consumed, and destroyed for the survival of another. Implied, of course, is the fact that the same nest also exists within the walls of the narrator’s own house: “Now while I’m trying to sleep I hear the rat scratching and chewing wood under the floor.” A boy breaks a wall to expose what lives within it, what is supposed to remain unseen, what feasts upon and corrodes his own life. The rat’s nest is at once both metaphor and physical reality.
Such sudden exposures of hidden spaces escalate in intensity as the book progresses, their horror and beauty amplified as the narrator grows older and more able to truly witness the surreal contradictions of his world. In “Usual Route,” he is working on a garbage truck when he encounters a scene that appears to nod to the earlier rat’s nest, but this time the scene is brought nearly to horror-film pitch:
In the alley a bloody-mouthed raccoon gnaws on a white baby shoe. It stands on a mattress with piss stains. A yellow blob of chicken fat traced by a trail of ants the chicken fat slugs along a mucous path. A batch of flies pile on the exposed red tendons and bone of a deer leg severed at the knee. Three rat-like kittens moan like babies in a soggy cardboard box. The fourth kitten is silent. Its deflated body lies shredded on the other end of the mattress. Draped across the tops of the three trash cans are large bouquets of funeral flowers, wilted off-white and droopy pink roses buried in full deep green leaves. The sun peeks over mountains, rays poking through fog, tinting everything soft yellow.
Throughout the novel, Dunn’s writing is fiercely and unflinchingly visual, and he employs a particular knack for collage, for complex and startling images composed of juxtaposing pieces—nature set alongside human waste, the sublime beside the grotesque, everything slightly askew. This tendency is revealed in the very first pages of Potted Meat where, in lieu of a table of contents or an epigraph, printed in capital letters, are the reader’s instructions:
INGREDIENTS: MECHANICALLY SPEARATED CHICKEN, BEEF HEARTS, PARTIALLY DEFATTED PORK FATTY TISSUE, SALT, PEOPLE HEARTS, RAT TURDS, BELTS, CHURCH, COAL, BATS FLOWERS, DUST YEYS, LINOLEUM, NAILS, SNAKES, GROUNDHOGS, CRAYONS, MULBERRIES, MOONSHINE, CIGARETTES, CORPSES, TAR, BLOOD, BONES, TREES
1. LIFT TAB
2. PEEL BACK
3. ENJOY CONTENTS
The numbered instructions at the bottom of this list of disparate and disconcerting ingredients are, in fact, a table of contents—the book’s three sections, as well as our task as readers: to lift the tab, to peel it back, and to revel in the collage of glory and horror that we find inside.
In a world in which violence is a constant and the protagonist is so often powerless, the act of witnessing—of learning to see both what is at the surface and what is behind the surface—is the first step toward empowerment, toward being able to create a world in which one wants to live. But it is only the first step, and it is hard-won. Again and again, Dunn presents the act of making art as both a potential escape and as a power struggle. In “Draw,” the first vignette of the book, the narrator’s cousin forces him to draw a man stabbing a woman: “I don’t want to trace these shapes. He grabs my hand and makes me.” Similarly, in “Color,” his stepfather forces him to alter a drawing in which he is holding hands with a white classmate in front of a house: “His fat hand grabs mine and makes me color over Rhonda’s yellow hair. Same to her face with a brown crayon.” Thus he learns that art is not only a space in which he can create his own vision, but also a space in which others can force their visions of the world onto his own. In “Happy Little Trees” he attempts to make colors with which to paint by consuming the natural world: “Chew coal. Chew red clay. Chew what a grasshopper chews. I chew a grasshopper…Open jar, chew lightning bugs. Wait till night when they light, then rip off the ass, smear it on my face.” Thus he internalizes beauty in an attempt to preserve it, to wear it even, destroying it brutally in the process. Art also functions as the hidden space into which the narrator retreats under the clench of violence, a way to dissociate from pain and powerlessness. In “Shake to Erase” and “Dance” we see him “thinking of how to draw a face on my Etch-A-Sketch,” concentrating on “how to draw the eyes and eyebrows without drawing a line across the top of the nose” while he is being beaten with an extension cord or switch or stick. “Start over Shake. I pull up my white long johns. Stripes soak through. Red Zebra.” We often see the narrator’s powerlessness when it comes to language as well—like art, words are an impulse he needs but doesn’t trust, doesn’t yet know how to use or fully control. “What If I can’t talk one day,” he says to his sister, trying to convince her to memorize the lyrics to a song in “Heavy D.” There is the fear of loosing language and the twin fear of not being able to control it. In “Dance,” “Some words are boiling in my belly and pushing up through my chest, my chest tries to trap these words, but these words keep pushing up like puke, and my mouth spews…” and at the end of “People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm,” “My voice leaks through my fingertips.” Over time both language and art become tools he carries at his side, small respites among the daily dreariness and violence, but nothing really beyond that. He practices writing raps with his friends on the school bus, has an art show at the local library that only his sister attends, pronounces that he will go to college to be “a fucking architect” and then, nearly in the same breath, admits he has signed up for the navy.
And ultimately there is no heroic resolution in Potted Meat. There is no final act of violent overthrow, no scathing and cathartic last speech. The protagonist’s fantasies and dreams of revenge and a climatic exit, as in “Super Powers” or “Almost” or “Disco,” are merely that, dreams: “A black horse with armor and an afro clops to him and opens its mouth. He reaches inside and pulls out a blood-streaked Samurai sword. He back flips onto the horse’s back and says, Giddy-up, god dammit. The horse does not move.” There is just a regular departure, halting and inevitable—drawn out in four final vignettes each titled “Stay.” He goes silently, refusing to write in anyone’s yearbook, afraid perhaps that if he says anything at all someone will try to convince him to stay. Instead, he completes chores at his stepfather’s behest until the moment his recruiter’s car pulls up, then slips out without a word, roofing tar still “on my hands my arms my neck my chest…It feels like it will be on my body forever.” But that escape, compromised and silent though it may be, is enough. The force of language will come later—in these unrelenting and excruciatingly brilliant pages. For Potted Meat is a story about survival, a story about seeing, about harvesting what you need to survive from even the most venomous landscape, and anyone who has ever needed to survive will recognize its power immediately.
Julia Bouwsma lives off-the-grid in the mountains of western Maine, where she is a poet, editor, small-town librarian, and farmer. Her debut collection, Work by Bloodlight, was selected by Linda Pastan for the 2015 Cider Press Review Book Award and is forthcoming in January 2017. Her poems and reviews can be found in Bellingham Review, Colorado Review, Muzzle, The Progressive, Puerto del Sol, RHINO, and other journals. She is the Book Review Editor for Connotation Press: An Online Artifact and the Library Director for Webster Library in Kingfield, Maine.