Another man's treasure

Drug money stashed in an old car upsets the delicate class system of the junkyard

By

With my editors on vacation, I can slip this review of a trashy novel into the august pages of The Christian Science Monitor. But don't look for a chiseled cowboy towering over some buxom woman in a hoop skirt. "The Metal Shredders" is a trashy novel in the best sense: It takes place in a junkyard. And the taboos it breaks aren't sexual. (Unfortunately, there are no sexual taboos left in modern literature.) No, it dares to raise the only subject that still makes Americans uncomfortable: class.

Nancy Zafris introduces us to three generations of John Bonners who have rooted through scrap metal looking for value that others are too careless or proud to notice. The founder, whose hysterical funeral opens the novel, was the kind of man who would bring the yard to a halt when he spotted 60 cents of magnesium in a tangle of wires. In the world's most wasteful nation, he realized early that garbage is the ultimate growth industry. (For example, we toss out 133 square miles of recyclable tinfoil every day just to unwrap our Hershey's Kisses. How's that for a loving embrace of consumerism?)

John Bonner III – even the names are recycled in this family – was embarrassed by his late grandfather's frugality. He's also uncomfortable with the fact that success requires finding men willing to sort through dangerous garbage for long hours for very little money. And yet he knows that because of all this, he now sits on a lucrative business that allows him to leave the scrap yard every evening and retreat into suburban gentility.

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The only problem is his conscience. "It's hard not to think of yourself as superior," the narrator observes, "when you work where he works with the people he works with."

This isn't a problem for his father, who's trying halfheartedly to relinquish control of the business while passing on his world-saving, penny-pinching wisdom. "The fact is," he explains, "human beings come in different alloys – what can you do about it? Everyone is happier when they know their place."

Since young John can't accept that metallurgical theory of human value, he's torn between patronizing his trash-grubbing employees and keeping them at a professional distance.

That tension increases dramatically with the arrival of an abandoned car from the county police department. Two dead drug dealers spent the summer in the trunk, and now the car smells so bad that John must practically threaten his staff to get them to clean it.

With their heads wrapped in rags to blot out the stench, they find $15,000 hidden in the trunk. John doesn't need it or even particularly want it – it stinks too much to spend – but he doesn't want to offend his workers by refusing his share of the bounty.

"You can't survive here as a boss," he tells his skeptical sister, "without understanding all the class issues hurled around this yard like bricks through windows."

Dodging those missiles while trying to spend or at least retrieve this filthy lucre sends John and his staff on a sometimes zany, sometimes touching odyssey.

Zafris's debut novel is full of the sweat of real labor and the sinews of class guilt. The symbolic scraps of this plot are particularly provocative. (It opens in a junkyard and closes in Las Vegas – nice symmetry!) She's managed to assemble a spectrum of rich and poor in the final resting place of American capitalism. For a few, it's also a garden of new wealth.

As the fiction editor of The Kenyon Review, perhaps the nation's most prestigious literary journal, Zafris is one of those invisible people who exercises a significant influence on the direction of modern literature, and that makes her first novel all the more interesting to consider.

In that light, frankly, it's disappointing to find "The Metal Shredders" uneven. The novel's strengths and weaknesses betray Zafris's experience as an editor of shorter pieces and her success as a writer of short stories.

The family scenes – particularly the meals – are wickedly witty. But the romantic scenes – including those involving an aggressively upbeat bisexual – don't ring like real metal.

Still, in the center of the novel is a find that's worth the price of the whole book: a brilliantly drawn story about the daughter of one of the junkyard workers who lives in a bus and falls prey to the worst kind of huckster.

In this perfectly paced episode, young Sylvia connects with a fast-talking telemarketer, whose patter is a weird blend of advertising pitches, self-help clichés, and spiritual mantras. Zafris manages to expose the pernicious effects of America's mad consumer culture on those at the bottom of the economic ladder without seeming to ridicule these poor slobs or coddle them with Marxist sympathy.

By the end, though, the novel loses its nerve and breaks up into scrap scenes. It falls away from larger social concerns and retreats into the narrow angst of New Yorker fiction from the 1980s. John Bonner III can't move on from a failed marriage, and his sister, at 35, still hasn't found a job or her sexual orientation. This self-absorbed ennui finally seems too small for the complex issues that Zafris develops early in the story.

But as any good junk dealer knows, the parts are more valuable than the whole, and value is easy to extract from this quirky novel.

• Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail comments about the book section to charlesr@csmonitor.com.

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