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At the most basic level, Scrapper details a city in shambles, a city that is fading away one block at a time, and the collective elements responsible for this death. While the main physical character is the middle aged man Kelly, the true focal point is the city of Detroit itself. Published in 2015, the novel grapples with the reality of the world: it moves on. Detroit, a once shinning city of automotive greatness, has fallen from said precipice. In the wake of both manufacturing and fiscal collapse, men like Kelly are stripping the city to rubble. Thus the novel details rusting of the rust belt and the men aiding the oxidation.
Like Detroit, life was not always so hard for Kelly. He was the all-star wrestler with a college scholarship. He was the man who women lusted after, the man who eventually found love and cared for a son. But Kelly is the man with the jagged paternal relationship, and like with many broken souls, the pangs of this paternal past haunt Kelly to the present day, even as he seeks out a redemptive salvation within his sagging, aging experience.
Kelly is the epitome of both the city and those who have faced similar economic plights. He lacks a college education, has a storied, complex past, and he does what he can to get by. As the novel begins, this getting by is characterized by going into abandoned homes and buildings and stealing anything metal. Cooper pipes and wire, light fixtures, whatever he can, and selling it for scrap. As Kelly journeys from place to place, he finds love in a woman with multiple sclerosis and, while scrapping a house, he discovers a boy imprisoned in a basement. Kelly seems dedicated to the preservation of these broken characters, for they, like himself, are struggling to get by. They, just like their home, have problems, and these problems are on full display whether through a limp or a kidnapping. He wants to save them, only they may not need saving, if they can be saved at all.
Dark and dreary, at times Bell’s writing can make your skin crawl, at others he can inspire. While Scrapper does a bit of both, it tells a touching, if not tragic, story of American collapse. Kelly does not seek exceptionalism; he only wants to get by—his entire adoptive home follows suit. Perhaps in some sense, while we all want to be great, we really are following a similar path to the novel’s heart: plugging forward, day-by-day.
- “Anything he took from someone else’s life wouldn’t work forever but if he kept acquiring more maybe the feelings might remain, transferred across the overlap” (21)
- “In the back of a child’s closet he found a scrawl of crayon reading I’LL BE BACK FOR YOU, written to the house, to whatever the child thought a house was” (23)
- “Even if his parents had lived forever he would have found a way to orphan himself” (31)
- “The last white family living in what used to be a white neighborhood. The last black family living in what used to be a black neighborhood. After both families were gone, only ghosts would remain. And what color were ghosts.” (104-105)