(Soho Press, 2015)
Before we are introduced to the protagonist of Matt Bell’s second novel, Scrapper, it seems in the opening pages that the main character of the book will be the city of Detroit. Not the Detroit of past glory and prosperity, nor the Detroit that is occasionally looked to now as a place for priced-out New Yorkers to start over, but a Detroit in which the specter of decay has finally won out over all hope for renewal. We begin with the burning of an auto plant that has been in ruins for fifty years. The fire comes while the area is being picked apart by a pack of scrappers, and almost all of them are lost to the burning collapse.
The city of Scrapper has not collapsed entirely. There are still hockey games, bars with lit neon signs, and a blonde reporter on television who chronicles life in “the zone,” a section of the city where the remaining residents are cut off from law enforcement and utility companies and left to fend for themselves. It is a district scarred by all known types of damage caused by nature and man, where “rain alone could turn a building to dust.” Kelly, the lone survivor of the fire, has found an outlet to punish and possibly redeem himself by facing down any danger that comes his way while trawling the abandoned buildings of the zone for copper pipe and wire, iron, and steel. Matt Bell has a gift for describing the mechanics and physical toll of manual labor, and we are made intimate with Kelly’s lonely routine of sledgehammer, hacksaw, shovel, and kick of the boot through plaster walls. It is a rough, masculine language for the novel’s rough, masculine world.
Many of Bell’s sentences in Scrapper begin with a strong punch and then slow down with a series of actions listed in fragments unbroken by conjunctions, in the rhythm of setting down one heavy object after another, a pause for breath in between. The style calls less attention to itself than his previous novel, In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods, which was so heavy with the sound of an ancient text that it caused me to imagine verse numbers punctuating the prose: “Across the dirt, upon a dock I had built with my own hands, the wind and the rain fell upon my face and the face of the lake, and there I felt the first stirrings of the fingerling.” Still, there are a few moments in Scrapper where the prose seems to overtake Kelly’s voice, and we question how well we really know the character. The narrator explains that Kelly “required an enormous vocabulary for describing degrees of distance [in the zone], a vocabulary he didn’t possess,” and for the most part the novel accomplishes the feat of bringing voice to the many types of unspoken ache behind Kelly’s quiet, muscled presence. Unfortunately there is just enough vague poetry and misplaced allusions to undermine the effect, such as this quote from a scene at a boxing club in the zone, where Kelly milks his thirst to hurt and be hurt by others, all the while fantasizing about a knockout punch that would come with the force of death: “The men he fought were like ancient golems brought to new life by his want for opposition.”
The slippery hold on Kelly’s voice becomes more of an issue toward the end of the book, as Kelly’s own sense of self unravels and we begin to question his role in the present action. The story is based around the discovery and rescue of a kidnapped boy who was imprisoned in the basement of a house that Kelly intruded on to scrap. The scene is vivid and compelling, because we watch Kelly’s world split in half at the moment that he discovers the boy. Time and space provide alternate possibilities in the before and after that reverberate in his mind once he hears the boy’s cry and opens the door: “There was an empty basement or else there was a basement with a boy in a bed and it seemed to Kelly he had gone into both rooms.” He could leave and pretend he never saw anything, cash in on his haul of copper pipe before the scrap yards close, or he could do something that would bring him a step toward redemption instead of obliteration. Kelly manages to do the right thing, which brings him some time in the spotlight, including an interview with the blonde reporter he likes to watch on TV, but the act only brings up more pain and regret from a cycle of abuse that inhabits his past. The revelations that follow are unsettling, but Bell navigates the material with unflinching bravery.
Still, the novel leaves a lot of questions about what, if anything, Kelly’s brutish and bruised character is meant to show us, given that the sympathy we gain for him is at odds with many truly ugly qualities. Bell is canny to address the pratfall of violence done in the name of protection, which he explores by showing Kelly joining the zone’s vigilante watch group, and by rendering a version of the infamous Florida neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman, who is unnamed except as “The Killer” in one of three short sections that take place outside of Detroit. Kelly sounds more like the Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in his inability to wrap his head around his prejudice: “He told himself the will to fight [at the gym] wasn’t about the color of a man but the otherness and he didn’t know how this was different, only that to him it was.” At the end, the national anthem at a hockey game brings Kelly “a swell of patriotism [to] his chest, how no matter what he did wrong he would always be an American.” If Kelly is an American, it is time for a collapse indeed.
DAVID VARNO's writing has appeared in BOMB, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Electric Literature, Paste, Tin House, Words Without Borders, and elsewhere.