City Paper is not for tourists
Novels written from the perspective of homeless substance users don’t come along every day. When they do, it’s a good idea to pay attention, since they offer a window into the casual cruelty of our social economy, which much fiction eschews. Christopher Chambers’ new mystery Scavenger offers just such a window. It features homeless survivor-turned-sleuth Dickie Cornish in rapidly gentrifying Washington, D.C. Dickie was originally middle-class, but he’s trapped in a death spiral of downward mobility: He’s a scavenger who occasionally works with jump crews, which throw evicted tenants’ possessions onto the street, then pick them over. The novel is focused front and center on the real estate war against the city’s mostly Black and Latinx poor—a war to clear out this population and pave the way for luxury domiciles, it says. Scavenger delineates its more recent carnage in the nation’s capital.
As one shelter worker tells Dickie: “See, you are society’s canary in the mine. The survivors, the scavengers … and if you perish, the rest of us aren’t far behind. That’s why I do this, honey. Self-preservation.” And the canaries aren’t doing too well; homeless people deteriorate and die on the street, while low-income families everywhere cede ground to affluent hipsters or wealthy Trump admirers. Much of this book focuses on the Trump administration’s presence in Washington: the corruption, the brutality from the Department of Homeland Security in its persecution of the undocumented, and the glitzy, crooked hangers-on. “That’s how it works in Rome … Sodom … Berlin on the Potomac,” thinks Dickie.
Scavenger’s roots reach into the noir detective novels of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. The darkness of omnipresent social evil blankets a landscape with little hope for ordinary people of average decency and below-average incomes. They are all slated for homeless shelters or deportation. “Uncle Sam won’t help the city hire more housing inspectors. No inspections means projects rehabbing these ratchet brick barracks into hipster palaces or chain-store anchors …” The sleuth, of course, wages his own personal war against this systemic dispossession, while tracing out the Chandleresque convolutions of a complicated plot that produces lots of corpses. Figuring out what is going on or why Dickie works for the rich thug who hires him is not always easy—but it becomes rewardingly clear in the end
Wandering around D.C., Dickie remembers old neighborhoods, ordinary people who used to inhabit them, and the small businesses that flourished before big box stores, pricey restaurants, and swanky condos took over. Chambers knows this terrain like the back of his hand. He can describe Washington districts as they were 20 or 30 years ago, down to the smallest details. He also captures the soulless emptiness of the museum district, traversed by sleek, well-paid officials in their SUVs, where Dickie lives in winter, under a tarp. Like Hammett with San Francisco or Chandler with Los Angeles, Chambers’ mystery is as much about Washington as it is about the amoral monsters who prey on ordinary people and the lone gumshoe who takes them on.
At one of Dickie’s main haunts, a shelter that provides multiple services, he encounters a boy who is homeless because his grandmother’s “apartment building was condemned by the city when the landlord couldn’t be bothered to fix it up. Hear they have a spin studio and a gym, a French mussels and frites-themed bar already wanting leases.” The tsunami of dispossession that Chambers portrays started flooding Washington decades ago. It might not stop until the entire city is, as happened in Manhattan, a playground for the rich. The financial incentives—thousands of dollars per month in rent for units that previously went for under one thousand—are simply irresistible to landlords and real estate developers, the novel argues.
Where do the evicted go? Shelters, doubling up with relatives, the street—regardless, their destinations are always several steps down. When the reader meets Dickie at the novel’s start, he has hit bottom. But the mystery he unravels gives him new purpose. Damaged as he is, he nonetheless has abilities peculiarly suited to piecing together this life-and-death puzzle. He also has “platoons of you bums … better than Facebook.” The homeless have lots of skills, something those who despise and fleece them would just as soon the rest of us forget. In Scavenger, they don’t have the housing and income they need, but that doesn’t stop them, because unlike their adversaries, they still have a moral compass and what that engenders: solidarity.
Scavenger by Christopher Chambers. Three Rooms Press. 344 pages.