Cover image for The metal shredders
The metal shredders
Zafris, Nancy.
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Publication Information:
New York : BlueHen Books, 2002.
Physical Description:
291 pages ; 24 cm
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X Adult Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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John Bonner is sure that any time now he will recover from the sting of his recent separation from his wife. And he's begun to wonder if he truly wants to spend the rest of his days running the family scrap metal business, an operation where his employees are likely to have made the very license plates they now shred. His sister, Octavia, has just returned to Ohio from Boston to nurture the pain of her own broken relationship, and she is more certain: following in the footsteps of their imperious father is a recipe for emotional disaster. But then two of John's more eccentric workmen discover thousands of dollars stashed in the trunk of a car, the remains of a drug deal gone bad. What to do with this unexpected cash draws John and his sister into the lives of their new-found collaborators, sending them all on a surprising journey of hijinks and the heart. In The Metal Shredders, Nancy Zafris offers up a refreshingly wise, offbeat and thoroughly convincing look at blue-collar America. Hers is a world rich in humor, steeped in closely held traditions, and filled with gently endearing, slightly crazed characters trying to discover just who they are. In the process they discover much about love, loyalty, family obligation, class and, yes, scrap.

Reviews 2

Publisher's Weekly Review

Zafris, the fiction editor of the Kenyon Review and the author of the short story collection The People I Know, dissects the decidedly strange subculture of scrap metal workers in her quirky debut novel, delving into the dissolution of an Ohio family's scrap metal operation when 30-ish John Bonner finally takes the reins from his domineering father. Bonner has the knowledge and savvy to handle the job, but he finds himself distracted by a difficult divorce and apprehensive about the prospect of managing his father's ragtag workers. He turns to his older sister, Octavia, for help, but she, too, is coming off a bad relationship and is equally dismayed at the prospect of following in their father's footsteps. A larger issue surfaces when one of the older workers finds $5,000 in the upholstery of a car used to ferry two murder victims, and John's "finder's keepers" decision regarding the money quickly produces problems when the cash disappears. John's search leads him to the worker's daughter, but her questionable decisions generate a series of fiascoes that brings the media in when the money finally reappears. Injury follows insult when another worker loses his life in a grisly accident, leading John to try to unload the business in a desperate effort to salvage his career. Zafris creates a demented and somewhat lovable cast of oddballs and misfits, although she gets a bit carried away with a libidinous saleswoman who has the hots for both John and Octavia. She does a better job of capturing the wacky world of the scrap metal industry. While the occasional lack of continuity between bizarre incidents reveals the typical struggles of a writer going from short stories to her first novel, the combination of Zafris's solid writing and unique subject matter bodes well for her future as a novelist. (Aug.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Zafris, author of the award-winning The People I Know and fiction editor of the Kenyon Review, engagingly chronicles a year in the lives of siblings John and Octavia Bonner. The book opens with the funeral of their grandfather, the original owner of the family scrap metal business, introducing one of the predominant themes of the novel: the search for identity and its relation to family. While John and Octavia try to rebuild their personal lives (both have lost their respective significant others) and buff the family name, some factory workers find thousands of dollars in a car trunk. This nicely complicates the story line. Throughout, the dialog holds up well, with only the occasional stilted line, and the action moves steadily enough to keep the reader turning pages. Recommended for all libraries. Lyle D. Rosdahl, San Antonio P.L., TX (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Prologue J ohn Bonner is the only living John Bonner currently on the scene, so it's his job to solve this problem: Allman's Nightrider is blocking the entrance to the church parking lot. It's a humongous thing, this twenty-two-wheeler, Allman's little bitty baby, and inside its cab is a regular apartment-bed, hot plate, coffee roaster, interloan library, camcorder, gun rack-nearly everything a bubba hippie of the road and proud owner of Franklin County's biggest overload (forty-two thousand pounds' worth of an infraction) could want. But it's blocking the church parking lot, that's the main thing right now. John has leaped out of his pickup and is already sprinting down the sidewalk. Fortunately Allman is early, so the assembling cars are few in number. John spots a Pennsylvania license plate idling in front of United Methodist. Pennsylvania must mean Murray Kempleton has arrived. Soon the other metal shredders from the tristate area will be here, and they are strange wealthy men for whom the wide world is either ferrous or nonferrous. Nothing else. Except on special days like this, when things can also be alive or dead. The Nightrider has corkscrewed itself into hopelessly stuck . Why did Allman think he could wend his parade float of a truck down a side street, much less into a small church lot? Probably due to the imagination built up through long hours of night driving, and other things. Enough time on the road, John has noticed, and the independent haulers start thinking their big rigs are Fiats. John is relieved to see that Tony, always ahead of time for work, has the same habit for funerals. He is here, he is one leg up on the running board and shouting over the engine noise to Allman behind the steering wheel. "We're backing her out!" Tony yells over to John, and then he does something he probably shouldn't, but it doesn't matter, nobody sees him, he stands on someone's car roof. His vigorous semaphore indicates he has seen a way to untangle the knot. The suit Tony is wearing hides the welding burns up and down his arms, but John can see a burn on the back of his hand, maroon and perfect as a caste mark, while Tony summons Allman two hand waves forward, straightens him, then motions him backward. The truck bucks in place, moves one crashingly loud inch after another. The noise turns everything else into a silent movie, and John finds himself watching it, the only sound the flapping of the sixteen-millimeter film, it seems so dated and jumpy and everybody looks a little weird, as if the ancient technology can't capture how things really are today. Tony has wet-combed his dark hair straight back, and the stark white forehead makes him look like somebody else. John has the sensation he is someone else, too. And he guesses that he is, actually. From this day forward he is sort of somebody else. John turns to find his father silently by his side. "What's going on?" the Senior asks. John doesn't answer. It doesn't really need an explanation. Does it? The Nightrider is so loud that maybe the Senior will think he has spoken. "I see," the Senior says. John is about to ask where his mother and sister are, but realizes if he speaks the illusion that he has already spoken will be ruined. He pulls his tie out of his shirt pocket and begins to loop it around. He's just read about eighty-five ways to knot your neckwear. He mentioned it to his dad-just something interesting-and all the Senior said was, Eighty-five ways to tie a tie. That's eighty-four things you don't need to know . As John straightens the knot and pushes it into place over his Adam's apple, he's aware of the Senior studying him. All of a sudden he feels this tremendous urge, it overtakes him. What the hell are you looking at? he demands of his father. He wants to say it so badly. He just wants to say it, that's all. His father is looking at him as if he can't recognize his own son, and now his son simply wants to say what the hell are you looking at? But he doesn't, of course. John and his father are still out in the middle of the street, keeping it clear for the violently bucking but hardly moving at all Nightrider. Then, miraculously, like a wedding ring soaped off a finger grown too fed up, the truck slips clear and free and escapes. Except it doesn't run off to Telluride, Colorado, where it decides to live with its sister and get a job substitute teaching. It goes down the street to a Columbus, Ohio, grocery store. The Big Bear supermarket has plenty of parking room for Allman's Nightrider. With Allman gone, the cars pour in. "That was easy," his father says. They head toward the church. They won't get inside, however, without properly acknowledging the tattered summit flags waiting for them at the top of the steps. The old guard, down to three. And a zealous three it is. Aluminum walker, nurse's aide, devoted daughter acting as crutch be damned: these elderly men are the celebrities in this crowd and they're not heading in to sit where their shrunken bodies will be hidden by the pews. Jacob Kolski from Youngstown raises a hand from his walker and offers his condolences. "He caused trouble," Jacob says. "Jacob, glad you could make it," the Senior says, shaking his hand. Next to Jacob is Happy Lazar, down from Cleveland. "Thought he'd never die," Happy Lazar says. "Happy, glad you could make it." Happy is looking poorly since the last time John saw him, having developed the turtle-ish slouch-shoulders high, head low-that John recognizes from his grandfather's last months. Clasping Happy's hand, now thin as a girl's, he feels a sadness at the fan of finger bones plucking through his palm like four sharp piano keys. The last of the old guard is Murray Kempleton, all the way from Lebanon, Pennsylvania, home of the first gas cutting-torch. In the world of scrap, the gas cutting-torch was an invention equivalent to talking movies. Murray probably tries to take the credit for both the torch and the talkies. He's about eighty-five, eighty-six. He had John's grandfather beat by a couple of years. "Murray, great to see you. Dad would be happy you came." Murray grasps the Senior's arm and pulls himself close. He gets up into the Senior's air space. "I told him many times. I told him, listen here, John Bonner, just because..." Murray Kempleton twirls the air, doesn't complete the sentence, lets the important advice hang in the sunless September breeze. His daughter is there next to him, holding his forearm. The daughter, with that stockiness that sometimes turns linebackerish in fifty-something women, seems nice enough, but John can see from the ironing lines that Murray's shirt has been sent to the dry cleaner's. John's mother wouldn't wash his grandfather's shirts either. Nor would she pick them up off the floor for him. It's true, he had begun to smell a little, but his mother's distaste for the man had settled in long before that. Although he dressed neatly, the clothes didn't necessarily have to be clean. His grandfather was a man who tried to turn his scrap yard into an obsessively organized and disinfected medical tent. He would stand under the wet scrubber and watch the iron drop into a bin until he spied a small piece of magnesium tangled in with the ferrous. He'd yell, There's sixty cents in here, get it out! But he was also a man who would stand in his bedroom among a sea of dirty socks, and a pair from the floor was the same to him as a pair from the dresser. John Bonner & Son Metal Shredders. A proud business for three generations. Three generations of John Bonners. The ghosts of scrap metal past, present, and future, John liked to joke. He used to milk the Shredders as fodder for all his funny anecdotes. Especially at dinner parties. He'd talk about his Strange Job. He'd talk about his Strange Employees. People loved it, especially the husbands, with their dragged-here-forced-to-do-this faces. He'd weave a few Shredder tales and suddenly he was the center of attention and loving it. Of course Elise was always there to throw him a look. She'd heard all of the stories before-the wild dogs, the live-body shredding, the various perils of the various night watchmen, the attempted scams of the father-son hillbilly teams who make their living scouring the blue highways for roadkill scrap. Elise didn't find the human condition illustrated by these stories something to brag about. The high school English teacher in her, the spelling-test roll-call schoolmarm part, came out in times like this. She didn't find any of the employees particularly amusing-not Tony or Greenslade or Worm or Ada or the hapless octogenarian Don Capachi. She didn't throw her head back and howl like the others. She looked elsewhere, out the window, where her own thoughts were gathering until they formed a riot and she left. First the party, then him. Everything made of metal contains scrap And everything made of metal eventually becomes scrap from the pamphlet Don't Ignore Scrap, It Won't Ignore You , written by John Bonner and passed out free at the weighmaster's station. An invisible force is at work. The mourners have self-classified in their seating choices. The church has turned into a scrap yard with the mourners ranked like grades of metal, best to worst. The purest grade, the family, are here in front: John's mother, who hated his grandfather with the purity of No. 1 copper; his mother, whose coiffed hair has never moved in the thirty years John has been alive, not even long ago when it hung in a ponytail and she was pitching a softball to him. His sister, Octavia, home from Boston-for a while, she says. His cousin, Rory who's decided to quit the business. Presumably Rory's mother, the Senior's sister, will be here at some point, since she's the sister. Nobody's heard from her. She lives in Florida. The finest alloys come next, the old guard, his grandfather's peers in the business; then business colleagues in other fields, Judge Cotter from the federal court among them, and some guy who looks like the ex-mayor, not that being an ex-mayor of Columbus is any great shakes, but it's enough to get him into the alloy seats. Iron, the scrap yard's tumbleweed, sturdy but rusty, takes up the middle ground of pews: Ada, the weighmaster cashier, sits here, as do Tony and their night watchman, Joe Greenslade. There's Dooley, the Linkbelt and shredder operator. He's either hungover or green with grief. Worm is here, too, that's sort of a surprise. Marcus, the yard boss, looms head-and-shoulders above poor aged Don Capachi. And the Welbargers are in attendance, the hillbilly entrepreneurs of the blue highways, who've forgone a day of scavenging the roads to pay their respects and no doubt stockpile some good food from the reception afterwards. The self-classification continues all the way to the rear where, hiding behind the sturdy iron middle, sit the contaminants. Here begins the sprinkling of lead, the Hispanics and the Cambodians who draw their salary in cash. Some stragglers John might have recognized had they not gone further downhill from the last time he barely recognized them-in fact, if he knew who they were he'd be surprised they weren't dead. And now some older folks, black men and women gone gray and white, people John doesn't quite know but suspects he might have long ago, people from a bygone era; some old ghosts whose loyalty his grandfather bought when such things could be purchased-Thanksgiving turkeys and Christmas presents and school shoes and paid-for medical bills. They liked his grandfather and they're not afraid to say so. At the back of the church Tommy Landers from Indianapolis has just made his entrance in Olympian fashion and he could be a clone of the Senior: good looks, big body, eyes that can ripple with emotional depth or cut like a shear. As if hearing John's thoughts, Tommy poses at the back of the church to let the sun's rays beam off him in a holy crown. Like the Senior, Tommy's been wanting to redirect his scrap business into white goods. The scrap yards won't take refrigerators, or washers and dryers any more, too many fluorocarbons and PCBs, it's now classified as hazardous waste, so there's a market out there that Tommy wants to exploit. The Senior seems to be in some kind of race with Tommy to get his up and running and profitable. It's personal, John is sure of it. Each is too used to being the only one who parts the sea into two behaving halves. Distracted by Tommy Landers, John doesn't notice Hayley Badecker until she's gripping his biceps with-he could swear-a flirtatious squeeze. She looks very good in her tight black suit. She's a rep from the railroad company but she looks more like the woman behind the Clinique counter, the one who's actually beautiful with or without the makeup, the one heads above the rest in commission. John notices his sister checking out Hayley Badecker with a who the hell is she type gawk, startled, he can tell, at Hayley's modelesque aura with the edge of trashy tartness the blond hair gives. John undertones an abbreviated introduction. Hayley Badecker reaches out to shake Otty's hand, smiling broadly at his sister before remembering funeral! sad! and abruptly shutting the curtain on her sparkling teeth. She goes back to regulation sympathy, mouth closed, lips together. She takes her leave with a clamped, tragic smile, using both hands to enclose the Senior's grip. "Such a wonderful man," she whispers to his father. "Thank you, Hayley," the Senior says. Tommy Landers now approaches, his mouth aimed only at John with a bit of an Elvis twitch to include John's mother. The Senior is shut out. Shredder etiquette demands at least a handshake, but each of them looks elsewhere as their fingers intertwine, the Senior's nod directed toward Jesus' cross, Tommy's nod toward Ada, the weighmaster cashier, who waves back. John looks at his watch, wondering when he'll get home. It's ten a.m. right now. That means it's eight a.m. in Telluride. She'll probably call later in the day, after five, which is perfect because he'll be home around seven. If he misses her call, the answering machine will pick up. Elise's message on the machine plays in his head. Call me, okay? He'll have to stifle a laugh at that one. Call me, okay? -the poetess, not so good with the spoken words. Look, there's a letter in the mail explains it all . He knew the message would end with that. She's lost without her pen, her spelling books, her attendance sheet. Plus she's got to get in the last word. When he comes up for air, he realizes he's been talking to himself. It's okay, no one has heard him. His muttering has been drowned out by the argument taking place at the coffin. The old guard, naturally, still up to their tricks. Who helped them up there? John was sure rheumatism would keep their spines soldered to their seats this time. His father is fighting through a Tommy Landers-blocked aisle, but it's too late, and besides, nothing will stop them now. The magnets attached to their key chains are already out and testing the coffin for any pull. Happy Lazar slaps the coffin with his bony palm and triumphantly shouts, "This is yellow brass!" "Yellow brass!" Murray Kempleton grrs, raising his tiny fists, ready to fight. John sighs, excuses himself past this mother's knees, and strides up to the coffin to join Tommy and his dad. "Sit down," his father says to Happy, not in a mean way, but in a comforting, almost gentle way. He settles his palms on Happy's frail shoulders. "Let him have his say." Tommy Landers pushes the Senior aside, pleased to order him around. The Senior is quickly roused and squares off against Tommy. He and the Senior look like brothers. It's Romulus and Remus with those two. Before John can think to act, Tony steps in. He sees Tony's hand, caste-marked with its perfect maroon burn, slip between their almost butting chests and push them apart. John is not sure it's really needed, this peacekeeping of an actual physical sort. What's going on is more or less a tradition, sort of a summer-stock production, and it's usually reserved for equity actors only. Tony the welder is not quite welcome up here but he doesn't know it. "There's a five-percent pull on this," Murray Kempleton croaks. He turns to make his announcement to the church at large. "Five percent pull!" he proclaims to all the mourners, smacking his lips with satisfaction. "Let it go. Let it go," the Senior says. This time Jacob Kolski pounds the coffin. The dwindling arm that lifts away from the walker and falls upon his grandfather's corpse is still a touch too strong to be engaging in this kind of punching, but that's what makes it edgy theater as well. Murray Kempleton declares, "Your grandfather wanted copper, not yellow brass, and what a metal shredder wants for his coffin a metal shredder gets." He has a point. It's all happened before. And will again, with Romulus and Remus trying to save the day. Who cares about a nice send-off to Heaven? Not these guys. Heaven is just some aggravating regulatory commission the federal government has dreamed up. John checks his watch. 10:15 a.m. 8:15 in Telluride. Ten, twelve, possibly fourteen hours for her to phone. The machine can pick up if he's not home. Call me, okay? Call me, okay? --From The Metal Shredders by Nancy Zafris (c) September 2002, Putnam Pub Group, used by permission. Excerpted from The Metal Shredders by Nancy Zafris All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.