[Red Hen Press; 2018]
Benjamin Shippers is 13, poor, and an aspiring terrorist. He wants nothing more than to blow sky-high a giant pile of garbage — specifically, Bi-Cities Sanitation & Recycling, AKA “Trash Mountain” — a noxious, swelling junk-heap which he and his sister Ruthann can see from their bedroom window. Ben knows what he wants, but not why. To the reader, it is clear: this a revenge plot, a fantasy of renegade justice. This toxic dump that is slowly leeching the life-force from Komer and Haislip weighs heavily on the mind of the young protagonist. It has already infiltrated his home, inflicting irreparable harm on his family: the chemicals used at the plant caused Ben’s sister to be born with a severe spinal deformity, which is likely to shorten her life-span, not to mention limit her ability to participate and succeed in life. Trash Mountain must be obliterated.
Bradley Bazzle’s debut novel Trash Mountain is part eco-fiction, part hero’s quest — though the habitat in peril is a human one, and the hero’s journey scarcely takes him beyond the border of his hometown, the evil behemoth that is Trash Mountain the town’s (and the novel’s) gravitational center. Over the course of three years, Ben orbits his target, adjusting his methods, his line of attack, and most of all his time-frame. What he once hoped to accomplish in a day, he realizes, will take years of careful plotting and no small amount of luck. The barriers he encounters are physical, social, and most of all economic. He leaves high school soon after entering to seek out odd jobs, saving money in a shoebox towards some eventual strike. “I was on a different path,” he observes, “a harder and longer path, more righteous, too.”
While Ben’s obsession with Trash Mountain never loses its hold, the terms of his quest, like Ben himself, are in constant evolution. The closer he comes to his objective, the less defined is his “unspecified act of terror,” the more remote the possibility that he will ever carry it out. The novel charts the teen’s progress from anger, through understanding, to an unexpected anagnorisis. Again and again, Ben’s experiences in and around Trash Mountain cast doubt upon the extreme views he has inherited from his family — especially those of his grandfather, a Doomsday-prepper, who educates Ben in a vehement fear of “hoboes,” categorically associating homeless people with characteristics such as drunkenness, violence, and sexual perversion; and patrolling his farm daily against the hypothetical threat of their incursion. The unconventional education that Ben gleans from his infiltration of Trash Mountain and the various friendships he makes along the way renders such prejudices suspect, ultimately troubling the line that separates good from evil, the very distinction on which traditional heroic narratives — and Ben’s own sense of purpose — depend.
Ben’s sense of himself as a hero is what endows him with the audacity to move outside those systems in which his peers, his parents, and his neighbors are held. Having an enemy — that is, something towards which to direct his anger — is, in this way, his saving grace; and Bazzle gives us a thorough illustration of just what it is it saves him from. The paths available to young folks in this pair of failing southern cities are indisputably bleak: no local colleges, the only major employer Trash Mountain itself. So many are left to improvise at the margins, making money off the books. When Ben announces to his grandfather that he has found such a job, the old man immediately assumes he means dealing drugs. We get a further illustration of this ad hoc economy from one of Ben’s early, unsuccessful job-hunts:
I knew from movies that sometimes people put HELP WANTED signs in the windows, but the only signs I saw were for pit bull puppies. Dog breeding was an option, but pit bulls were where the money was, clearly, so I would have to catch a few stray[s] . . . But the strays were scary, and I didn’t relish the idea of encouraging them to copulate.
Even Ben’s friend Demarcus, a model student, admits to working so tirelessly towards nothing loftier than the vague and uninspiring ideal of a “sit-down job.”
In 2018, it is impossible to evoke angry poor white America without talking about the currents of racism and xenophobia running through such segments of the population. Bazzle’s novel addresses this head-on, suggesting that this, too, is a path which Ben’s terrorist ambitions divert him from. Ben’s sole group of high school friends are economically disadvantaged social outcasts, whom his sister Ruthann terms “a bunch of future school shooters,” or “future meth-heads,” or “future sexual sadist serial murderers,” and whom Ben suspects, accurately, to be neo-Nazis. In the working class communities around Trash Mountain, there is no sense of solidarity; the population is divided into factions, covertly and overtly, based on race, ethnicity, and even Komer vs. Haislip hometown pride. Ben’s gun-toting friends are as paranoid as they are macho, alternately forecasting a zombie apocalypse and a race war.
The novel suggests that this worldview has such a hold on these young men as a result of the environment in which they live: a job-desert where more and more houses are bulldozed each day to make way for literal heaps of trash. It is clear that Ben is not impervious to this same sense of environmentally-inspired doom:
Buildings and things only stayed un-trash as long as people used them, was the way I saw it. When people left, their stuff started turning to trash immediately. Trash for the dump. For Trash Mountain. And it wasn’t just buildings and things; it was people too. If nobody saw you what was to stop you from turning to trash?
In this way, Bazzle makes their fears comprehensible, and this is one of the great strengths of the book; its willingness not to omit what is problematic in our society for fear of normalizing or softening it, but instead to engage with the ugly, the irrational, the nonetheless really real. Trash Mountain invites a nuanced conversation about the demonization of the “other” which can (and does) arise out of economic disenfranchisement. Bazzle is not out to apologize for Trump’s America; in telling the story of Ben Shippers — this bright, curious and sometimes naïve observer — he is walking us through an awful landscape in order to show us the way out. Social and economic changes move at a glacial rate, but an individual can be moved in an instant. This is why a work like Trash Mountain is so vital; it reminds us of the power, now more than ever, of narrative.
Emily Alex is the prose editor at Puerto del Sol and a prose editor with Noemi Press. She teaches creative writing and composition at New Mexico State University, where she is an MFA candidate in fiction. Her writing has appeared in The Offing, and is forthcoming in Denver Quarterly and The Collagist.