Scrapper, by Matt Bell. New York, New York: Soho Press, September 2015. 320 pages. $26.00, hardcover.
If they’re not from there, people tend to avoid Detroit these days. Buildings, if not collapsed, are pillaged for any valuables, and the desolate places left are filled with desperate peoples. There is a grim sense of finality in everything that happens there—the people that undertake actions could die or, if they’re lucky, move away. Violence rules more often than law and order. It seems a place, at times, devoid of all hope. It is in this hopeless place that Matt Bell locates his new novel, Scrapper.
Scrapper is the story of Kelly, a former wrestler/boxer who returns to his home state of Michigan after leaving a woman in the South to scavenge scrap metal from the wrecked city that is Detroit. He scavenges in a desolate area he calls the Zone, pulling wire from walls and taking appliances when they have not been taken already. The place is a wasteland, unfit for most. Buildings have crumbled or will crumble and people, Kelly realizes, will never know. “There were sights here few strangers would see again. Except in the photographs of urban explorers. Destruction porn. Except through the window of a bulldozer. Destruction.”
During his scavenging, Kelly also looks for the things that people have left behind, that at one point held meaning: “He thought he would like reading a book inscribed with someone else’s marginalia but when he got the book home he found he didn’t need the voices of more ghosts. That was already what reading was.”
One day, after unlocking a basement door in an abandoned house, Kelly hears a boy’s cries. He brings the boy, Daniel, to the hospital and becomes a hero for a brief period of time, before his obsession with finding “the man in the red slicker” who kidnapped Daniel overtakes his life. He starts working out more, he takes up boxing again. Kelly develops a friendship with the boy that no one approves of and is eventually severed by his parents. Soon his search is suspicious not only to the police but to the woman in his life, Jackie, whose degenerative disease first manifests itself as a limp. As their relationship grows, she eventually becomes unable to talk or move well at all. Kelly continues to search for the boy’s captor, hunting through every house of the zone, becoming more frantic, more obsessed with every day that passes. Eventually, Kelly kidnaps the boy’s older brother and kills him in an attempt to assuage his feelings of guilt over not finding the real culprit.
Throughout, Kelly struggles to figure out who he is, not only to himself, but to others. Scrapper takes on multiple meanings—not only does scrapping act as his livelihood, but he also fights to survive, fights to feel something. After saving Daniel, Kelly constantly questions whether he’s the unhinged, dangerous scrapper or the savior, working to make a better life for those he interacts with. Jackie attempts to act as his voice of reason, but the more Kelly dives into the mess that is the unsolved case—and it only becomes solved in the sense that Bell allows readers to see that the captor has escaped and is living in fear of reprisal from Kelly—the less he listens to Jackie until it is too late and he comes home after dealing with Daniel’s brother to find her on the floor. She’d spent the night there, unable to move.
There is a lot going on in Scrapper, and Bell maintains all of it wonderfully. Not only does his tone stay consistent—hardly a page goes by where readers are not intimately aware of the vile, foreboding situation that surrounds the characters, but he’s able to simultaneously weave together a gripping story that keeps the pages turning.
There are a few moments in Scrapper, though—three of them to be exact—that stand apart and don’t necessarily mesh that well with everything else Bell has created. In these three different chapters, we’re transported first to Guantánamo Bay, where a character who may or may not be Yasiin Bey (the rapper Mos Def) is force-fed. In the second chapter, we’re in Sanford, Florida, trailing George Zimmerman. In the final chapter, and close to the end of the book, we’re in the remnants of Pripyat, Ukraine, following a soldier in the years after the Chernobyl disaster. These chapters stand out so starkly because they take the reader so far from the thick of things. When following Kelly in the Zone, it’s easy to become lost in the rubble, to forget that this near-post-apocalyptic landscape exists in this day and age in this country. By diving into these other lives, also filled with different types of pain and loneliness, he seems to be saying that it could happen everywhere, that it is all connected. One failure in society begets another begets another. Horrible circumstances do not need to interact to be horrible.
Almost every page in Scrapper is excellently rendered. Bell has stepped into the ring with language and landed all the right shots. He’s ducked, weaved, and uppercutted his way to a tight, beautifully-wrought book that will haunt long after the last page.
Sam Slaughter brews beer and teaches college English.