By Nancy Smith
Matt Bell’s intriguing new book, Scrapper, follows Kelly, a former boxer who has returned to his ruined hometown of Detroit. We are in the near-future, where “neighborhoods sagged, all the wood falling off of brick, most every house uninhabited, the stores a couple thousand square feet of blank shelves, windows barred against the stealing of the nothing there.” Day and night, Kelly roams the zone, an abandoned area, where he collects scrap metal from the depths of the ruins. While salvaging a house, Kelly discovers a kidnapped boy locked up in the basement. After rescuing the boy, Kelly becomes a sort of local celebrity, and in the light of all these events, he develops a relationship with the boy that causes him to reflect on his own morally ambiguous past and his desire to seek retribution for the boy.
A spate of excellent post-apocalyptic books have emerged lately, including Edan Lepucki’s California and Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, however Scrapper feels distinctly different from these and other recent narratives, largely because of Bell’s unusual writing style. He clearly excels at the sentence level, and part of what makes this book so unique is his ability to so wholly capture the devastation of the wrecked Detroit landscape, which becomes just as important as any character in the book.
In describing the destruction of Detroit and the rising dust from scrappers breaking down the last remnants of a car production plant, he writes, “See each particle a part of a whole disturbed, see the exponential increase of surface area wherever an object was broken down, a way a thing split might ignite faster than its inert whole. All the broken mess of steel and wood and brick rising, each particle alighting, each floating particle eventually coming to touch another, each touch a whisper of contact.” This writing—complex and careful—infuses the entire book and often pushes it much further than one might expect from its narrative alone.
Names and naming, important threads in this book, come and go, and are dropped into the story in odd ways that give us a profound look into how Kelly views the world—and the people—around him. Characters are often referred to, not by their actual names, but by what they do or what characteristics they have: the boy, the girl with the limp, the heavy detective, the blonde reporter, the killer, and of course, the scrapper. This pattern of nonspecific naming distances these characters from the reader and blends them further into the wild, bleak landscape. At the same time, it pushes the story into a semi-fantastical realm where we begin to think of each of these characters as representing much more than their individual parts.
Some of the most gripping moments in Scrapper occur when Kelly begins to search for “the man in the red slicker,” the boy’s kidnapper and would-be killer. The killer himself occupies a few chapters, which are, somewhat unnervingly, written in second person: “Your name was not important but you believed one day an inquiry would begin, an organized speculation of detectives and reporters asking who was he and who was the real him and how was a man like him made. To refuse these interrogators you scrubbed your name clean, restarted yourself, removed all of the old life’s worldly tarnish. You had a past but in the present it was only this you who remained, this you and a boy, one boy at a time. Or so it had been before the intruder.”
This perspective is adeptly juxtaposed with Kelly’s case notes, where he muses on his “intrusion” and what had motivated the killer: “The confidence it took to take a boy. The confidence it took to park right in front of the school. Confidence or else direst need. And if the man who kidnapped the boy wore a mask, then when the boy first saw my face he must have thought I was the kidnapper, carrying the same wants into that basement.” As Kelly dives deeper into the case he pulls forth details from his own past and involves himself in the community in new ways—most notably focusing intensely on boxing—in order to work through his own guilt.
In many ways, the book is intensely gendered, as it dwells on a number of traditionally masculine concerns, such as Kelly’s determination to develop a large, muscular body, brutal boxing matches, and constant references to violence and labor, whether it be in scrapping metal, carrying heavy loads, or physical abuse. At times, I wished desperately for the voice of a woman to appear in this book—for the girl with the limp to engage with Kelly more deeply, to truly have a voice of her own. Even in the sporadic chapters that remove us from Detroit and take us around the world from Guantanamo to Florida to Pripyat—few women exist in this narrative, and those we do see are heavily filtered through Kelly’s perspective. However, this is Kelly’s story. This is his world—a world in which he has become a sort of superhero—but perhaps one of the downsides of Kelly’s intense outlook is a deep desire to save and protect women, which at times can feel patronizing towards the few women who do inhabit this desolate landscape.
That said, there is a genuine earnestness to Kelly’s actions, a belief that he can be a better man, and that, even amidst this miserable landscape, it’s worth it to try. As Scrapper comes to a close Kelly’s story isn’t neatly wrapped up (not that we would expect it to be) but its final elusive moments leave us to question his motives, his purpose. Literature often highlights the extreme ends of human emotion—the deepest pits of sadness and the loftiest moments of joy—what Scrapper gives us is a glimpse into a broken future where emotion is even more fragile, more tenuous. In Kelly’s story we can see what happens to lonely people who inhabit an empty landscape, where the randomness of destruction permeates and the fragments of past lives are always and forever emerging from the wreckage. The ruins that form this landscape are not limited to Detroit, or even the external world, but extend far beyond to a place much more personal. Scrapper is really about the private ruins that dwell deep within each of us and shape our motives, our purpose.
By Matt Bell