The book starts in a forceful second person: "See the body of the plant, one hundred years of patriots' history, fifty years an American wreck." For six pages the reader is told again and again to see the crumbling glories of Detroit's Packard Plant in a brisk enough pace that at one page's top we're told to see "a luxury made of ten thousand stitches," and only two paragraphs later are told to "see the half-life of every man and machine and place. See the plant closing."
Matt Bell's "Scrapper" is a book of what to do with ruin and of how we attempt to salvage or redeem. While the novel's subject is a man in his 30s named Kelly, Kelly himself is, like most of the other characters, flat, animated to whatever vividness he achieves by idea.
He's the scrapper of the book's title, trawling the Zone — the blighted circle of Detroit marked by crime and abandoned homes, diminished civilities such as lights or police response — seeking houses from which to rip from their walls copper piping, any metal he can sell. In one such house, in the basement, he finds a boy — a young teen — chained and naked, whose captor Kelly will spend the rest of the book seeking.
This event happens too early for the reader to understand why Kelly might have had any reaction other than helping, but "Scrapper" eventually shows Kelly to be a deeply wounded man, so much so that he nearly carries two halves inside him: the "scrapper" and the "salvor." The former wants to rip the houses apart and let Detroit (and himself) burn; the latter wants to find and treasure whatever may yet be worth saving — in himself, in Detroit, in anyone.
While the book's ideas are compelling, and the plot well-built enough to keep the reader engaged, there's a gray repetitiveness to Bell's writing, a lack of specificity that steals the book's power: "What had Kelly done to hold the words back. What would it take to reverse the damage. He shook his head, studied his hands."
What's sometimes achieved is a rhythmic glory, the sentences feeling slotted together keenly; however, a music is sacrificed through monotony: "His ability to keep fighting after he'd been hurt. How even if he knew he would be hurt badly it didn't mean he wouldn't fight back, wouldn't push against every fist in the world."
Which is not to say "Scrapper" isn't a worthwhile read, nor that Matt Bell is a writer to dismiss. The book and author are attempting to address large and gnarly issues of significance.
While a reader could fairly ask for a more varied music, the story itself is compelling and sound.
Weston Cutter is from St. Paul and lives and teaches in Fort Wayne, Ind.