At their most earnest, post-apocalyptic books or films incorporate some element of the speculative, advising their audiences—explicitly or implicitly—that the ruined world they portray represents one possible future. That is, if we don’t reverse the course we’re on. Matt Bell’s new novel Scrapper envisions a world as grim and primed for post mortem as any sci-fi dystopia.
But there’s nothing speculative about the blighted Detroit that Bell describes, a post-industrial wasteland of decay, abandoned neighborhoods and derelict buildings left to the wolves and termed “the zone.” The zone, along with the titular “scrapper,” are real features of current-day Detroit, a city that’s lost millions of jobs and a quarter of its population in this young century. The seed of Bell’s story was planted in 2012 when The New York Times published an article titled “Dismantling Detroit,” which profiled two documentarians and their new short film of the same name depicting “young men who salvage scrap metal from Detroit’s derelict buildings… and risk their lives to squeeze any last dollar out of the industrial detritus.”
Bell’s scrapper is a former boxer named Kelly who has recently returned to his native Detroit and spent the last year eking out a living on regular late-night scrapping excursions in the zone. Kelly has fled the self-imposed wreckage of a life down South that we see only in glimpses; we know he lived there with a woman and her son—and loved them both—but inflicted some unspecified sexual abuse on the boy that destroyed their lives and exiled Kelly to Detroit. As the novel begins, Kelly becomes involved in a boozy but ever-deepening relationship with a young woman with a bad leg and an encroaching illness that eventually confines her to a wheelchair and renders her unable to speak.
The defining event in the novel occurs one night when Kelly finds a naked kidnapped boy chained to a bed in the basement of a house he’s scrapping. Never far from doing the unforgivable, Kelly shuts the door when he leaves the room to retrieve his tools, and briefly considers alternative courses of action before going back to save the child. He cuts the chain and carries the boy out to his truck, only to return to the house to gather his remaining tools and backpack, leaving the boy shivering and terrified in the “pit” of his pickup truck’s cab. Then Kelly delivers him to the emergency room, “passing through the bright and sterile and indistinguishable light of the hospital, toward the company of others, where they would be safer than they were now, alone.”
What follows is one of the most unflinchingly real and devastatingly disconcerting narratives of a hero’s acclaim imaginable. Like Nixon in dire need of a shave, Kelly looks far more frightening than heroic on camera when he meets the boy’s parents to receive their thanks and claim the reward. Bell brilliantly manages this shared discomfort, convincingly conveying every element of this “stuck in a moment you can’t get out of” encounter, right down to the boy’s flinching when his father tries to touch his shoulder and the parents’ horrified reaction when Kelly tells the boy he’d like to see him again.
Interviewed for the local news about saving the boy, Kelly perfectly captures the sub-heroic nether zone in which he operates when he mangles the word “savior” on camera, referring to himself as the boy’s “salvor.” Thereafter, his inner voice often devolves into a battle of the scrapper and salvor, although the two are never as far apart as one might hope. Ultimately, Scrapper is a book about the salvageable and unsalvageable among the ruins of lives rather than what might be truly saved or redeemed.
Bell draws the darkness that surrounds and radiates from Kelly with great power and precision. Although he tells Kelly’s story in the third person, Scrapper, for the most part, operates deep inside the head of a man who can’t say the names of the most important people in his life, preparing his body with ever-increasing intensity for violence.
The novel breaks from Kelly’s narrative a handful of times. One digression takes us into a cell at Guantanamo Bay, where a “famous rapper” goes to make a documentary about a prisoner; another into the mind of George Zimmerman the night he killed Trayvon Martin; and a third into the hollowed-out life of a Chernobyl survivor. All of these miniatures work on their own terms—particularly the Chernobyl episode—although their relevance to the book appears underdeveloped.
Far more successful are the intermittent interludes into the mind of the man who kidnapped the boy that Kelly found. Rendered in the second person, and otherwise quite hard to distinguish from Kelly’s narrative, these scraps of a fugitive psychopath’s interior monologue work disconcertingly well as indictments of both Scrapper’s putative hero and the seemingly guiltless reader. The narrative “you” almost feels accusative and makes for unnerving and unsettling reading.
Perhaps the novel’s most revealing moment comes in a scene at the home of the “girl with the limp” when Kelly picks up a murder mystery she’s reading. The plot of the book seems eerily reminiscent of the boy’s kidnapping: “A serial child abductor on the loose, an unlikely detective tasked to take him down.” Defending her choice of reading material, she explains:
She liked the order… She liked the way the evil in these novels was a solvable mystery temporarily unsolved. The guilty could be found, accused, punished. When a woman made a mistake, the woman could redeem herself. The world of her novels was not chaos but merely the appearance of chaos. Instead, there were hidden systems, mechanisms that could be uncovered, put to use. The righting of the bad world. A point to suffering, a suffering that improved the sufferer. Three hundred pages and an expectation that by the end all the answers would be revealed. The transfer of weight as the pages fell from the right hand to the left, an accumulation of certainty.
Scrapper offers no such consolation, no such certainty, no such redemptive promise or moral closure, any more than it offers the comforting idea that its portrayal of a city in ruins merely represents one possible future. On the contrary, Bell says, this is real, this is now, this is true, this is you. As a result, Scrapper is a punishingly effective and brutally affecting novel.