Steven Dunn, A Potted Meat, Tarpaulin Sky Press, 2016
Reviewed by Dana Green
I cannot help it. I can only see orchids growing out of the "meat" on Steven Dunn's cover. They are not orchids. The cover of Potted Meat is matte black holding a slab of "meat" with rat skulls almost growing out of it. Dumb people say that dumb thing, "Don't judge a book by its cover." I say, "Don't make dumb rules; Please judge Potted Meat by the cover."
The novel's cover art, by Angel Whisenant, speaks directly to the text and author, because she is related to the text and author. Whisenant's friendship with Steven throughout his time in the Navy, as well as helping each other raise children, substantiates the inextricable connection between the cover and context of Potted Meat.
While the cover art is captivating and disturbing, Steven's novel is even more so. The blend between detail, sincerity, and raw honesty finds its home in a fragmented, short form that only tells what it needs to, and continually leaves me without breath. For example, in "Shake to Erase," Steven breaks up three vivid depictions of routine abuse with detailed accounts about attempting to create a face on an Etch-A-Sketch: "I did something bad, at school or at home, maybe school, probably home... Stepdad hits me again, extension cord, or switch. Oh, you aint cryin. You think you a man, I'll beat you like one... I pull up my white long johns. Stripes soak through. Red zebra" (Dunn 15). Here, the long paragraphs that break up the abuse attempt to erase the trauma, distract from it, but only highlights the daily horror. Content and form marry each other nicely with Steven's subtle truth, and matter-of-fact trauma; Narrative is fragmented because trauma is fragmented.
The novel follows the unnamed narrator as he grows up in southern West Virginia. The narrative vignettes are broken into three sections titled with instructions on how to eat Potted Meat, and it is as if the vignettes contained in these sections function as ingredients of a young man's life. The narrator is built of humor, family, poverty, sexuality, race, music, community, alcoholism, trauma and is covered in shame. Attempting to describe Steven's novel is about as difficult as making potted meat from scratch.
The best way I can say it is: Steven is a rarity, as you will see. And genuine. And scarring in his power. Steven Dunn writes like he exists in a room, patient powerhouse, and his laugh is like a back-of-the-throat static. When we all laugh, Steven seems to be laughing more.
The only way I can communicate Steven's novel is to open up the conversation to him:
We sit in Steven's living room. There is a baby, there is a teenage woman (Jada—his daughter), there is his close friend and writing group member (Brian), there is his wife (Tara) holding the baby (Baby), there is Steven (Steven). Absent, is another writing group member Lorenzo, or James as Steven calls him, a remnant of their time in the Navy. James is not in the room. I asked James questions after, but Steven, Brian, and James know each other well enough, that his answers fit into the conversation uncomfortably well.
They start talking about what Steven will be like when he is older:
Steven: I am going to be like that 70-year-old black dude at 7-Eleven. This girl walks by, and she has a big butt, and he's like, "Boy, she draggin' that wagon." And I'm like, "Yeah."
Tara: You're probably right.
This is Steven, is the book, is culture. Steven captures normalized sexism, community through language, male sexuality, and poverty—in Aurora, Colorado, and in southern West Virginia. He and Tara are joking, but communicate the same heavy concepts tackled in the novel.
Steven: So the story exists, where it does, in fucking West Virginia, and I love the way people talk, and I am from there, so... I have access to that. And I talk that same way sometimes too.
Tara: A lot of times.
Steven: A lot of times, okay yeah... And a lot of times it is political for me. People think country motherfuckers are stupid, but there is some wisdom and shit in these voices, and these people's lives, regardless of the setting or what's going on. People make do with the shit that they have. All of that contributes to the narrator's voice, and to the people speaking,
My cousin was like, 'How the fuck did you get exactly how everyone talks?' So I was like, 'Thanks, man. I appreciate that.' And he said, "I didn't know I talked like that until I read myself talking, and I'm like, 'Damn, That's exactly how I talk.' And I think that is my voice aspect of it.
Steven brings culture to life with his language, his voice. The town becomes a real place, the characters believable, the narrator relatable. When working through Potted Meat, Steven is standing behind you the entire time, reading it to you. His work is alive. Despite how much of the book undeniably comes from Steven's narrative voice, he insists that it is a book written by a community: his family and writing group (who might as well be family).
Jada: I asked him if he was splitting it into chapters, and he was like, 'I am doing it in part one, part two, part three' ... and I was like, 'Okay...'
1. Lift Tab
2. Peel Back
3. Enjoy Contents
We laugh because "part one, part two, part three" missed the mark by miles.
Jada intuited the connection between instructions and sections in the novel as an obvious choice for her father's art. Steven was too close to the work, so Jada pointed out his artistic oversight. If a novel is called Potted Meat, the reader consumes it in the same way that they do the "food." Parts one to three became the symbol of poverty and trauma that it grew out of.
Steven is not sure if eating potted meat is a rite of passage or not.
Brian: We would sit with all the stories printed out (Steven laughs) and think about how to best plot it. Because when Dunn talks about plot, he talks about a land or organization... so, going from something [funny], to something that is sad, and really playing with that feeling within yourself.
Steven: I had no idea it was comic relief sometimes. It was like mirroring; If you go through that shit, you need to be a clown in fucking public... Wearing masks, and keep pushing down shame.
James: We argued about everything in the book—every comma, word, sentence fragment. All that shit that's in there is on purpose. I fought for every 'as' that is in the book, so if it's a total of five of them fuckers in there, that's five arguments I won straight up. We also argued using rap albums Illmatic and Aquemini. How you get to that shit from writing a book? I couldn't tell you, but the cool part about it is that we got to go to a Nas and an Outkast concert.
Steven: I think that Brian and James downplay their importance, I won't say they downplay their involvement, but I'll say they downplay their importance, I'll say that. I feel like this is me, Brian, and James's book... Every week for almost three years we met up, and we was working on Brian's stuff, and James' stuff, and my stuff.
James: The question should be: What didn't I contribute to the book? ... Naw, I would honestly have to say that my contributions, aside from the word "as" appearing in the book, would be rhyme scheme, rhythm, and the flow of the stories.
Steven and Brian keep arguing about how much Potted Meat was a collaborative effort. Brian says he did not create original content. Steven says, "I respect your opinion." We all laugh. In my mind, James is shaking his head.
James: Now let's jump into this shit, I know you've heard about all the arguments, and fights; those shits used to be serious. The only bad part is we used to wake Tara up, like, every night. She used to come out there and nicely say, "Could you guys keep it down?" But you could tell she wanted to say, "Shut the fuck up."
Tara is quiet about this. She says the last five years of writing required "comprafice" —compromise and sacrifice "trademarked."
Tara: People have been asking me, for so long, "What it is about?" It's not enough to say that it is about growing up in West Virginia. It is a unique experience, because of how it is written, and it's not what people are used to, like an A-Z, you know, plot kind of a thing.
That leaves us with: What is Potted Meat about? A question that, I feel, most reviews are supposed to address more than half-heartedly. This question, its slipperiness, gets to the core of Steven's novel. Culture and community are not easily pinned down. Trauma fractures identity and memory to the point that the self is left with incongruent pieces that we are forced to try and put back together for the rest of our lives.
For example: "My sister is on her knees in the snow. A jump rope around her throat. She is shivering. I am shivering. The slivers of space between shivers are warm. I want to gather them in my hands like sewing pins and give them to her" (Dunn 48).
Five pages later, and four chapters, "Grandad is shuffling his cards at the kitchen table... Come here for a sec, he says to me. Lemme tell you a story. I sit next to him. What do you want, he said. You said you wanted to tell me a story, I say. Nope, he says. I said I wanted to tell You a story. Is your name You. No, I say. He busts out laughing. I been looking for that mothafucka all my goddamn life, he says, if you ever find You, let me know" (Dunn 53).
What happens between these disparate moments, the painful and joyous, is where Steven's novel lives. I cannot tell you what the novel is about because its meaning lives in its spine.