Book Review: Steven Dunn's Potted Meat / by Neal Auch

It's thanks to this book that I now know that Potted Meat Food Product is a thing that exists.  It's a kind of canned meat, similar to Spam, I guess.  Potted Meat is a blend of a variety of animals and organs; the typical ingredient list involves beef tripe, pig skin, "partially defatted cooked pork fatty tissue", and "mechanically separated chicken".  This last ingredient, in case you were wondering, is "a paste-like product made by forcing crushed bone and tissue through a sieve to separate bone from tissue".  Yet another reason I'm happy I don't eat meat...

Anyway, enough about Potted Meat the "food product", which sounds fucking horrible, and on to Potted Meat the book by Steven Dunn, which is absolutely fucking fantastic.   Potted Meat is a kind of coming of age story that follows a teenager in a dying town in West Virginia through a troubled adolescence that is marked by poverty, domestic abuse, racism, crime, alcoholism, and lack of opportunity.  The story is told in short fragments, each one a small snapshot of a difficult life.  There are moments of brutal violence, there are moments of hope, there are moments of crushing disappointment.  It's amazing to see how much emotional power Dunn manages to squeeze into these short narrative fragments; most are only a few pages long and yet several of these little snippets seem to take the breath away.  (Indeed, the whole book is really more of a novella than a novel, it's only about 100 pages long and yet it never feels incomplete.  Some reviewers on Amazon seemed unhappy about the how short the book is, although this didn't bother me.  Frankly I think that if this narrative were drawn out over several hundred more pages the story would likely be far too emotionally draining for most readers.)

At times I was reminded of a novel by Katherine Dunn (no relation, the shared last names are a coincidence as far as I know).  Katherine Dunn's Truck is a wonderful novel that is vastly underrated, perhaps because most reviewers feel compelled to compare it to her career-defining masterpiece, Geek Love.  In any case: both books describe rather unconventional coming of age stories, both employ somewhat unorthodox narrative structures in places, and both authors share an admirable gift for conveying a deep and dirty physicality with their prose.  Some of the most squirm inducing scenes in Potted Meat involve descriptions of food, or uncleanliness, or bodily function.  These are often nearly as upsetting as the descriptions of violence and child abuse.  On learning the definition of "mechanically separated chicken" from Wikipedia I found myself musing on the analogy between the preparation of this commercial product, and the long, gruelling process by which the narrator of Potted Meat extracts himself from his home town.  I don't know if this kind of analogy is what Steven Dunn intended with his choice of title, but it certainly struck a chord with me. 

Finally, I can't help but mention the cover art by Angel Whisenant.  Obviously this is the kind of thing I can't help but love.  I mean, fuck me, just look at that cover.  Beautiful.