Scrapper – by Matt Bell

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Matt Bell’s Scrapper is a requiem for a defunct city. The urban wreckage of Detroit is seen vividly through the eyes of the antihero, Kelly. Kelly is a scrapper, someone who trawls through dilapidated buildings looking for re-sellable metals – steel pipes, iron, copper wiring.

Early in the novel, Kelly is excavating a gutted home when he finds a traumatized boy tied up in a room. He rescues the boy and briefly becomes a hero. But from this point onwards, we see Kelly floundering in a morass of psychic pain. He longs to find the monster who abused the boy, but the harder he looks, the more he sees himself, for he too is damaged, with a history of abuse possibly going both ways.

Unsure of how to move on with his life, he obsessively adopts the tropes of masculinity – boxing, weightlifting – and becomes a protector of his ailing girlfriend and the boy he rescued. Like some lugubrious superhero, he builds his body into a wall of muscle to protect himself. But from what? The boy’s abuser? Or perhaps from human weakness. This focus on the physical, on contained violence and vigilantism, dovetails superbly with the theme of disintegration. The city, of course, is falling apart, as is the body of Kelly’s partner, but Kelly’s own body keeps ballooning with muscle.

Besides Kelly, the characters are strangely blank. And like Kelly, they seem wreathed in pain, as wrecked as the buildings around them. We never go more than surface deep with any of them, but somehow this doesn’t matter. As ever with Bell, the big story is the prose. It’s as bleak and poetic as a winter night. He works in taut, lyrical sentences, abjuring humor, joy and pretty dialogue. Take this extract describing Kelly on a walk:

“The boredom of being alone, walking below the many names of the Messiah scrawled in spray paint, the higher the holier. More names everywhere, names falling down, and when the names were gone what city would remain.”

The absence of a question mark is a stylistic tic throughout the novel.

Detroit
Detroit

The descriptions of the city and its buildings are riveting, and near the end there’s a scene in a boxing ring that perfectly captures nihilism and abandonment – perhaps a metaphor for Detroit itself.

“When the punch arrived Kelly felt every higher function stall, his body tumbling, feet turning under softened ankles, calves collapsing, the knees going sideways, the stupid body crashing like a carcass from a hook.”

I have only one caveat with the novel, and that concerns some episodes which come from different stories and contexts: a rapper trying to film a Guantánamo documentary, a neighborhood watchman who kills a youth, and a Chernobyl survivor. Thematically, these stories fit; we are left to ponder ideas of memory, destruction, incarceration, and the constant battle between transformation and stasis. But the episodes cost the book some narrative drive.

Overall, though, Bell’s gifts as a prose stylist, his artistic vision, and his conjuring of a world that is falling apart both internally and externally, make this a brilliantly compelling work.

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