Steven Dunn’s novel Potted Meat begins with an unconventional table of contents under the guise of an ingredients list and instructions for consumption. This maneuver automatically subverts readers’ expectations of convention and brings to the forefront the idea of control. This formal device also asks the reader to immediately question what goes in and out of our bodies, minds, and lives. The image and metaphor of potted meat, by its very nature, is a symbol of many things, including class and public health structures. Dunn’s ingredients list begins with “mechanically separated chicken, beef hearts, partially defatted pork fatty tissue, salt,” then goes on to add “people hearts, rat turds, belts, church, coal, bats, flowers, dust, eyes, linoleum, nails, snakes, groundhogs, crayons, mulberries, moonshine, cigarettes, corpses, tar, blood, bones, trees.” Potted Meat, as we begin to understand it, reflects the many ways this symbol represents a certain kind of upbringing—poverty-stricken, abused, without privilege, filled with suffering—and the struggle to find a way out, if there is one, and what that way out might mean. This is a story of what we are born into and what we can and cannot escape. Potted Meat’s contents expose the fact that, especially in our childhood and teenage years, we rarely if ever have agency over what happens to us: this exposure brings into the spotlight a kind of upbringing that so many people endure and may never escape.
Place and community play a huge role in Potted Meat as the unnamed narrator navigates from late childhood into his teen years. We enter a landscape of poor, black West Virginia where he is surrounded mostly by family at first—elderly grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles, a sister and mother, and an abusive stepdad. Dunn’s landscape is later filled in with classmates, friends, and teachers/coaches. Many scenes are bleak and dominated by various degrees of violence, early encounters with drug and alcohol abuse, and dangerous situations of all kinds. For example, the narrator is beaten time and again by the adults in his life: “Stepdad hits me again, extension cord, or switch. Oh, you aint cryin. You think you a man, I’ll beat you like one”; “[Mom] leaves and comes back with the extension cord. The red welts on my dick are smooth”; “My mom tells me to pull my pants down and bend over the stool. She is having a hard time choosing between the belt and the extension cord. Until my stepdad says, Use this, and gives her a big stick.”
In the beginning of the novel, the narrator’s awareness is limited, but there is a sense that everyone else in the community is in the same situation as him. In this town, a neighbor buys and intentionally burns down a house for insurance money, a football coach buys crack rocks, friends run away from their abusive homes, and people die all the time of self-inflicted wounds and accidents. Dunn’s characters might believe that somewhere out there in the world other people do not endure such hardships, but here where they live everyone does.
Inside the bleakness, however, grows a true sense of light, an idealization of situation, wherein we see that the narrator in this vast wasteland possesses an inclination toward art and imaginative thinking as his only escapes. But we can also see that even in art and imagination there is no true escape, that these are simply fleeting moments saving his sanity and life. In the first chapter, “Draw,” we are immediately introduced to his twin passions, and in “Night” he allows us into his mind when he conjures a rumor of a ninja “that’s creeping around at night and hunting kids.” This does not scare him; in fact, it invigorates him as he daydreams about moving to Japan to study under the ninja. He sneaks out at night in search of the ninja, only to find a neighbor who has overdosed and died. The reality of the situation always taints the boy’s ability to live fully inside what keeps him safe.
In “Super Powers,” a chapter very unlike the others, the narrator weaves a fairy-tale narrative in his head, imagining himself larger than life and destroying what is destroying him—first by shattering a cinderblock over his stepdad’s head, decapitating him, and feeding the head to the dog, then by chasing his mother down and choking “her with the inside of his elbow while whispering in her ear that everything is okay.” Later in the novel, a teacher encourages him to “have an art show for a week at the public library,” but no one shows up except his sister. Still, the narrator’s creative pursuits keep him alive through the dark circumstances that seek to destroy him.
If the beginning of Potted Meat is a bleak homage to a poverty-stricken, violent upbringing, the ending offers an encouraging source of comfort via the transformation and transcendence of such bondage. It is a revelatory unraveling, revealing the difficulty of decision-making once one has reached an age to have the agency to do so, who you have to leave behind to create a life for yourself that does not mirror the situation of those around you, and the momentous power in creating identity through a broken yet potent understanding of the life into which you were born.
Grafton, VT: Tarpaulin Sky Press, 2016. 134 pp. $16.00, paper.