Steven Dunn's writing is here, like a visceral intervention across the surface of language, simultaneously cutting to its depths, to change the world
Steven Dunn, Potted Meat, Tarpaulin Sky Press, 2016.
Potted Meat, a novel set in a decaying town in southern West Virginia, follows a young boy into adolescence as he struggles with abusive parents, poverty, alcohol addiction, and racial tensions. Using fragments as a narrative mode to highlight the terror of ellipses, Potted Meat explores the fear, power, and vulnerability of storytelling, and in doing so, investigates the peculiar tensions of the body: How we seek to escape or remain embodied during repeated trauma.
Steven Dunn’s Potted Meat is full of wonder and silence and beauty and strangeness and ugliness and sadness and truth and hope. I am so happy it is in the world. This book needs to be read. — Laird Hunt
Potted Meat is an extraordinary book. Here is an emerging voice that calls us to attention. I have no doubt that Steven Dunn’s writing is here, like a visceral intervention across the surface of language, simultaneously cutting to its depths, to change the world. My first attempt at offering words in this context was to write: thank you. And that is how I feel about Steven Dunn’s writing; I feel grateful: to be alive during the time in which he writes books. — Selah Saterstrom
Some folks need a hundred pages to get you in the gut. Potted Meat, meanwhile, contains 101 pages of miniature texts that keep tapping the nails in, over and over, while speaking as clearly and directly as you could ask. A childhood of confusion and abuse blossoms into military inscription like watching a life pass before your eyes. Zero indulgence, all formative. Bone Thugs, underage drinking, alienation, death, love, Bob Ross, dreams of blood: This thin thing is flooded with power. - Blake Butler
Bob Ross is on. He has paint. I don’t. First I grind flowers with a rock but it don’t work. I chew and chew dandelions. Spit mixes into yellow paste. I chew grass. I chew mulberries. I chew wild onions. They don’t make color so I swallow. Tingles back of the neck and waters my eyes. Chew coal. Chew red clay. Chew what a grasshopper chews. I chew a grasshopper. Crunchy, then juice squirts to back of throat. The paste is chunky brown green white. Lick off hand and chew until smooth. Open jar, chew lightning bugs. Wait till night when they light, then rip off the ass, smear it on my face.
Chrissy Ann hears someone say she stinks. She goes to the corner of the playground and kicks the fence. I ask her whats wrong. Nothing, she says. I ask her if she is coming to baseball practice. I already know she is because her dad and my stepdad are the coaches. They say her dad is racist but he is always nice to all the black people on our team. She asks can she wear my hat. I give it to her. Blondish brown hair hangs out. Whats this X stand for, she says. Malcolm X, I say. Who is that.
Buck runs over and says, Stinking bitch, you smell like wolf pussy. How do you know what wolf pussy smells like, she says, wolves aint even in West Virginia. Yeah, I say, wolves only live in the North Pole, you stupid muthafucka. So, Buck says, you still stink.
Chrissy Ann don’t stink. She smells like work. Like how I smell like coal smoke. She lives at the end of the holla on top of a mountain and has lots of hogs and chickens. She feeds them every morning. When I was at her house her little brother stuck a stick up the hog’s butt. Chrissy Ann slapped the shit out of him. Then she hugged the hog. Then she said we should take a walk in the woods to get out the heat and away from her stupid brother.
We stroll through old trees. Dirt is black and soft. Dark green ferns and bright green moss. We pick blackberries and blow on them before eating. Mushrooms the size of saucers. Not for eating, she says, but to keep cool. She rubs the mushroom on her forehead and cheeks. Tells me to. The brown inside of the mushroom feels like a damp sponge. She picks another and rubs it on her neck and arms. Grabs my wrist and rubs the mushroom on the inside of my arm. My neck. She presses her lips against mine and pushes her tongue in my mouth. It tastes like blackberries. Is this okay, she says. Yeah, I say. We look at my shorts poking out. She smells like mushrooms and hogs.
I get my first summer job. On the trash truck Mondays through Friday. Four-twenty five an hour. I get up at five-thirty and meet the truck at the city hall at six. Just throw the goddamn bags in the truck, Russell says, then hit the side to let me know when you done and I’ll pull off. I throw a bag in, hit the side of the truck, he pulls off. He drives slowly up hills, down hills, around curves, up hills again. Throw bag, hit truck, pull off.
Some of the bags bust. Meat and milk drip onto my chest. Diapers, chicken bones, maxi pads. I lift a bag above my head and brown jelly oozes into my mouth. Lunch time, Russell says, we behind schedule cuz of you. We’ll just sit right here on the back of the truck and eat real quick. I sit with my bologna sandwich and Fritos. Gray milk, I think, soaks through my pants until I feel it in my crack and on my balls.
Russell pulls a blue cooler from behind the seat. In it are two ice cold bottles of MD 20/20. Orange Jubilee and Banana Red. He gives me the Banana Red and says, A little afternoon refreshment, good sir. Why thank you, Sir Russell, I say, you are most kind. You are most welcome, but don’t think you gonna get some free shit every day, nigga.
Tell You a Story
Grandad is shuffling his cards at the kitchen table. Counting money. Shuffling more. Come here for a sec, he says to me. Lemme tell you a story. I sit next to him. What do you want, he says. 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 lookin for that muthafucka all my goddamn life, he says, if you ever find You, let me know.
Dustin Holland's review. Here’s an excerpt:
When Steven Dunn reads excerpts from Potted Meat at events, it’s easy to forget that you’re listening to pieces of a novel. Each of his selections manages to stand on its own as a powerful moment taking place in an established, well developed universe. In fact, when he’s reading, it’s hard to imagine the text being a part of a larger body of work. It’s hard to imagine that he’s left anything out: they’re just so fucking solid. Like, this is it. This is the art.
But,Potted Meat is a novel… in pieces. And, while, yes, each piece is excellent — they have more power as chapters. The psuedo-episodic quality of each chapter propels the reader through a maze of love, growth, struggle, abuse, and discovery with an unrivaled energy that builds throughout the novel. Dunn doesn’t waste any time. Every scene advances the reader’s understanding of the narrator and the world he is growing up in. Instead of taking the time to describe the passage of time between chapters, Dunn throws us into new situations and lets us try to get our bearings as his characters attempt to do the same. Childhood, or at least the way we experience childhood, isn’t linear. Growing up is all about trying to make sense of the world and our place in it without much context and with a rapidly changing understanding of self. Potted Meat’s fractured pace is a perfect articulation of that experience….
When I think about this book I want to run up to people on the street, grab them by the shoulders, shake them, and shout “You need Potted Meat in your life!!” I realize that accosting random strangers and shouting at them isn’t the best way to start conversations or promote books, but I might do it anyway. Because honestly, I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t find some value and beauty in this book.
Steven Dunn at Necessary Fiction
Steven Dunn Interviewed in Rocky Mountain Revival Podcast
Steven Dunn interviewed at Full Stop
Steven Dunn interviewed at Tethered by Letters
Steven Dunn interviewed at Freedom Train Radio
Interview at Counterpath
Steven Dunn is the author of Potted Meat, co-winner of the 2015 Tarpaulin Sky Book Prize. Steven was born and raised in West Virginia, and after 10 years in the Navy he earned a B.A. in Creative Writing from University of Denver. He is the Reviews & Interviews Editor for Horse Less Press, and currently lives in Denver.