I have read only a very few graphic novels, but the ones I have read all seem to tread the same emotional ground. Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan, Daniel Clowes’ Ghost World and now I Never Liked You by Chester Brown. Their stories center on a sort of teenage emptiness that inspires a combination of pity and fascination in me. Visually, however, the three are quite distinct with Brown’s artwork being far more spare than the other two. Brown’s jagged panels placed asymmetrically on the page are surrounded by black, drawing the eye to his simple lines. (Unfortunately, later editions of the book have replaced the black pages with white.) His panels are devoid of details and instead focusing of the setting, the reader dwells on the characters, primarily young Chester himself. Brown’s picture of himself is both funny and sad, and while the book touches on his mother’s death, the focus is on his interaction with girls. He tells his friend Sky that he loves her but doesn’t know what to do next. His neighbor Carrie has a crush on him and they engage in this strange wrestling ritual as a stand in for actual communication. Girls are drawn to the odd, artistic boy but they are also repulsed by him. In the end, the book is about Brown’s inability to engage emotionally – with these girls, with his mother, with the rest of his family. It’s a poignant and quick read (it took me about an hour), but Brown’s dreamy artwork will stay with you.
Detroit may not be cranking out the fire-breathing cars or the finger-popping Motown hits the way it used to, but the Motor City has been inspiring some splendid writing in recent years. The latest addition to this long and growing shelf is Matt Bell’s stirring second novel, Scrapper, a book that gets its hands dirty wrestling with the wreckage — both material and human — of a once-mighty city.
Kelly is the novel’s titular scrapper, a loner who cruises the city’s abandoned heart, known as the zone, looking for metal he can salvage and sell. It’s lonely, dangerous, back-breaking, and marginally criminal work, but Kelly does it without complaint. He isn’t living any sort of real life, just “wallowing in the aftermath of terrible error.” Even so, he proves to be a savvy guide to the city’s underground economy, the contours of its decline. He knows, for instance, that the decline began long ago, as in, “Nearly two million citizens in 1950 but then fewer every year.”
He knows about emptiness: “The farther he moved toward the center of the zone the more the 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.”
He knows about the relative value of scrap: “A hundred pounds of copper pipe paid more than double a truckload of steel.” And he understands the gradations of the city’s scrap yards, from legitimate to flagrantly illegal: “The unofficial yards kept unofficial hours. You could show up in the middle of the day and find the place deserted, show up at midnight and find three guys playing cards, getting high, cutting scrap. They paid a fraction of the price, the price of no questions asked.”
Such details are important because they ground the novel in a very real and very sinister world. Reading Scrapper, you don’t so much enter a conventional fictional world as you succumb to a fugue state, or a fever dream. Bell is a brave writer, willing to work without a safety net on a high wire of his own making. He stumbles from time to time, but that doesn’t diminish this novel’s admirable ambition.
The story gains steam when Kelly meets a girl at a bar and they begin a relationship. An emergency dispatcher, she knows cars and she loves the local hockey team, the Red Wings, which is to say she’s a true Detroit girl. In time Kelly learns that she’s suffering from an unnamed progressive disease that has the markings of multiple sclerosis, which will provide a test for his love and his mettle.
The story finally soars when Kelly makes a horrifying discovery: a naked 12-year-old boy chained to a bed in the sound-proofed basement of an abandoned house. He frees the boy, takes him to the hospital, and watches his own simple life mushroom with complications, including the suspicion that he was involved in the boy’s abduction, and his mission to seek vengeance against the abductor. These complications lead to a nearly schizophrenic split in Kelly’s personality, between the rapacious scrapper and the high-minded “salvor.”
There are stumbles, as I say. Sections narrated in the second person by the kidnapper feel contrived. A sudden shift to first-person narration by Kelly is jarring. Two sections — one set in Cuba, the other in the Ukraine — add nothing to the story. In the former, a terrorism suspect talks like a Don DeLillo character on a bad Cosmopolis day: “In your country, if I had shot a man in my youth, could my crime be almost an accident, an inevitability, an unavoidable outcome of a system?…A crime, yes, but the crime of having been younger, less educated, less patient. There would be those who would protest my harsh treatment.” No one talks like that, and I have no idea why this man is in the novel.
But such missteps are minor compared to this novel’s larger virtues. Kelly was a state champ wrestler in high school, under the tutelage of a demanding, abusive father, and now he takes up boxing. This leads to a bravura boxing match, during which Kelly absorbs a vicious beating and Matt Bell proves he can write like a dream, can make boxing a metaphor for a way to live life:
How to protect yourself from the blow you can’t see coming. This was what the other boxers talked about…(b)ecause it was the blow you couldn’t see coming that knocked you out. If you stared into every punch you could never be put down. The illusion of control. Self-determination in battle. Kelly didn’t believe in anything else he’d once believed in but he thought he might believe in this.
For such insights, Bell acknowledges his debt to On Boxing by Joyce Carol Oates.
Maybe the finest thing about Scrapper is the way in takes us into a deep-pore underworld that’s rarely explored in even the best books about Detroit. Paul Clemens has written beautiful and sad stories about the decline of blue-collar Detroit, but Scrapper is something new, a book by a writer willing to explore worlds so dark you need a miner’s helmet to navigate your way.
The novel’s publication coincides with the appearance of a wonderful new non-fiction book by David Maraniss, a Detroit native, prolific author, and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. His Once In a Great City: A Detroit Story offers a vivid snapshot of the moment when Detroit reached its peak, from late 1962 to early 1964. Meanwhile, Dominique Morisseau continues to write wrenching plays set in Detroit’s glorious and turbulent past. There have recently been insightful books on Detroit by Anna Clark, Mark Binelli, Charlie LeDuff, Scott Martelle, John Gallagher, and others. And Angela Flournoy’s terrific debut novel, The Turner House, the story of a sprawling Detroit family’s crumbling home place, has just been long-listed for the National Book Award.
With Scrapper, Matt Bell has joined some fast — and fast-growing — company.
When I think of the books I really love, the ones I rant about and buy spare copies of so I can give them away, I do not associate many of them with the place where I first read them. I extol an author’s language and humor, a particularly memorable character, the ideas that make the book hum, the sense of place imparted on the pages between the covers. For the most part, what I’m reading is much more important than where I’m reading it.
One notable exception to this dates back to 1998, when as a college student I had the good fortune to participate in Semester as Sea (back before MTV sullied the program’s reputation). I had already gotten a taste for travel and the narratives it inspired by authors like Jan Morris and Paul Theroux. Before leaving for four months at sea, I knew I needed the right book. I found it in The Size of the World, Jeff Greenwald’s recounting of his journey around the world without ever leaving its surface. Utilizing any available mode of ground transport, Greenwald put together more than just a travel story, and I will never forget reading it during my time on that ship.
I’m writing this in Granada, Spain, the Alhambra’s foreboding exterior walls hulking above the hills visible from my window. I knew I would be here for close to a month and had this very much on my mind as I ferreted around for a book to bring along. I wanted something big, entertaining thoughts of War and Peace or Mason & Dixon, maybe JR. The end of the harried week prior to departure found me at Posman Books in Grand Central (my first New York City employer), not wanting to rush my decision but also feeling a self-imposed pressure to get home, finish packing, tidy up the apartment and leave town the next day.
I fondled all of the books I had considered but none of them felt right. With my list out the window, I started looking at books I haven’t read by authors I like. This didn’t work either. No stranger to such bookstore dilemmas, I defaulted to books published by houses I admire: FSG, NYRB, Vintage, New Directions, Dalkey Archive. I was getting warmer. Great Russian World War II novels didn’t seem right, neither did woeful contemporary tales of struggling writers. But then a spine that read Balcony of Europe caught my eye. I liked the cover: Roman arches holding up a great black edifice – housing the title and author’s name, Aidan Higgins – seemingly floating on the mountain-rimmed Mediterranean, two semblances of sail boats, triangles of red and yellow. The back cover copy declares the book a long-unavailable masterpiece, based in “a village on the coast of Spain,” which the table of contents pinpoints to Andalusia. I was sold.
Andalusia comprises the bottom chunk of Spain between Portugal and the Mediterranean. It contains several provinces, including Granada and Malaga at the region’s southern most reach. Nerja, where a great deal of Balcony of Europe takes place, is located in Malaga province. While the euro and technology have radically changed this part of Spain compared to the novel’s early 1960s setting, the craggy coastline and hilly interior dotted with remnants of Roman and Muslim conquests remain the same. At its core, this novel is about history, as the W.B. Yeats epigraph attests: “I begin seeing things double – doubled in history, world history, personal history.”
From early 1962 until the summer of 1963 Irish painter Dan Ruttle, the narrator, and his wife Olivia live in Nerja, a coastal village reluctantly awakening to the advent of tourism that helped spur Spain’s “economic miracle.” Attracting expatriated artists, writers and eccentrics eager to live cheap and focus on art and pastimes, the Ruttles work, read, swim and haunt local bars and cafes with other Europeans, Canadians and Americans. Chief among them are Bob and Charlotte Bayless, he a native Californian writing a scholarly book about Shelley and Byron and she a Lower East Side Jew, beauty her greatest craft.
Dan Ruttle and Charlotte Bayless have an affair. And in one sense, that’s the book. But though the affair is physically consummated, it exists mostly in Dan’s mind. He is obsessed by thoughts of their handful of assignations and how national, political and cultural histories cut their characters out of time’s fabric. The ghost of World War II is inescapable: Franco’s unfulfilled pledge of alliance to Hitler; drunken ex-Nazis; American “we saved your ass” bravado; Jewish identity; “American bombers” constantly flying exercises, contrails embroidering the clear skies. There are also Joycean weaves of history, bobbing in and out of myth and time as read from mountains and sea changes.
From what was and what is and what could be, all of the individuals in this book fill time and waste it. Both Olivia and Bob realize their spouses’ infidelities, but most of their reactions only ever exist in Dan’s head, his interpretation of glances and body language, how they echo the first time Bob slept with Charlotte years before in San Francisco. More than once, Olivia does raise the issue of Dan’s none too subtle preoccupation with Charlotte, but he never responds to her. Dan internalizes everything, and is aware of it, asking himself, “Would my sensations be forever intellectual?”
Interestingly, the characters solidify based on wonderfully descriptive and repeated details of physical traits and personalities. Charlotte doesn’t carry change because it is bad for the ovaries; Schiller kept rotting apples in his drawer because the smell inspired him. Such details are reported over and over again, sometimes more than once on the page, other times two hundred pages apart, providing a perspective like a fly’s: multi-faceted visions that form a whole.
Such repetition might suggest boredom or lack of anything better to say, but the opposite is true, as this book insists: “If a thing is boring, keep repeating it.” Nothing is boring or insignificant by virtue of its existence, and characters like Dan Ruttle tower over most fictional figures, able to create a worldview that synthesizes personal quirks with two thousand years of history. His attitude renders him a passive character, to be sure, but for Dan that’s the rub of history, all experiences are a return to a time that is and was, now and forever. Watching a tipsy old man search for a key to unlock a door, Dan thinks, “I sensed his discomfort; he did not want to go in, though by staying out he could not alter anything. He looked for neither truth nor the likelihood, stood there play-acting, making me feel uncomfortable. How well I understood how he felt, deforming himself, deforming habit and custom. But nothing would change.”
Of course, change is inevitable and constant. Today in this part of Spain there are more tourists, no language is uncommon to hear, no one bats an eye at topless sunbathing. But, dinner is still eaten very late, and breakfast is often accompanied by beer, the church bells still clang and the Sierra Nevada stand tall, dimpled with snow even in summer’s hottest months.
There is no doubt that reading this book at home in New York, riding the train and before bed, would be memorable, but reading it here, covering some of the same ground as these characters, makes it lasting. Watching patterns of swifts cross the sky, the movement of sand on the sea floor, flamenco guitar strings plucked as bright and crisp as the sun – these qualities of place have shaped my reading of Balcony of Europe.
The other day I pulled a stone out of the Mediterranean. It has probably not been dry for a very long time. I will return home with this soft, weathered stone, carrying its history, most likely older than human history and our constructs of space and time. In creating Dan Ruttle, Aidan Higgins has deftly distilled a great many ideas into one very important one: a place defines history, but history cannot be contained by a place.
What book has made an impression on you because of where you read it?