It was 1994. I was restoring a Victorian era home in a growing community. Our family of five was pinching pennies on my meager teacher’s salary so I took to dumpster diving at old house construction sites and salvaging historic architectural elements at homes slated for demolition, reselling them to antique dealers. And leaving for school each morning I passed striking Firestone workers at the edge of my neighborhood.
That confluence of experiences laid the foundation for my novel; The Salvage Man. It’s the story of Dan Reynolds, a man who’s become invisible in a place where he thought he’d matter. In a startling moment of terror and wonder, he meets another soul as invisible as he is. Together, they seek redemption.
Though a long time ago, I recall the events that shaped this story.
In the early morning dark, driving to work, I found myself behind a slow moving truck pulling a magnet that hung an inch above the street, gathering nails dumped by union workers to harass scabs. My town’s biggest employer, Firestone, was trying to break the union. The union-busting, picket-line crossing, slow-motion destruction of those jobs happened a few blocks from my home. The plight of those workers weighed on my mind. Their jobs were being sent abroad. The world was passing them by.
When I moved to this town in the late ‘80s, the population was 18,000 and growing. Many of those Firestone workers were raised here. I met blue-collar folks my age who grew up in a town they thought would be 10-15,000 people, where they’d have jobs of a certain kind and fit in socially in the life of the town. But even in the late ‘80s it was changing rapidly, and by the mid ‘90s, that world was evaporating. Today, our population is 55,000.
That growth and those new suburban residents created an economic vitality that overshadowed the fading blue-collar colors of the town. For the writer in me, that became Dan Reynolds’ background.
During the same period my little family lived in an 1890s house I was restoring. I took to dumpster diving for old house parts at demolition sites and stripping old houses prior to demolition. It helped me restore my home and provided extra cash as I sold truckloads to antique salvage yards.
Once, my neighbor Russ and I salvage cut stone steps from a neglected farmstead west of town. It was being demolished to make way for a new subdivision. The 1870s Italianate home was partially collapsed, leaning like a Dr. Seuss cartoon house. Russ had been inside already looking for salvage. Digging out the four-foot long stones that hot sunny day, I asked if there was anything inside worth taking. Russ is not prone to mysticism, but he gravely said, “Something bad happened in there. You can feel it. Don’t go in.” The cold insistence in his eyes convinced me. We muscled the stone steps into my pickup and left.
|The setting for The Salvage Man|
And The Salvage Man story percolated and evolved in my mind.
A few years later I salvaged again at a picturesque farmstead at the north end of town, across from the last covered bridge in the county. In my new position as a Realtor and the president of the local preservation group, I’d convinced the developer to save the pre-Civil War home. But the barn, grain bin, milk house and carriage house were all being demolished to make way for yet another new subdivision. I felt a deep sadness as I gathered doors, porch posts and shutters that had been discarded in the barn loft. The next week when I went back for more salvage, I found a staggering mountain of dirt had been moved, making a twenty foot deep dry mote around the barn, which was now perched on an island. It was a bizarre scene. Eventually the barn would be demolished and the ground beneath it also moved to make the subdivision’s retention pond.
It was there on that farmstead that I set the story of the Salvage Man, there that I imagined Dan Reynolds doing the same work I was doing, but he did it to financially survive after the strike. And like the old farmhouse Russ had entered, this one gave off an ominous feeling inside; dense, stale air, and dark rooms that put a tingle at the back of your neck and filled your chest with an adrenaline-spiked urge to get the hell out.
It is there inside that house, in that barn, and on that land that Dan Reynold’s life changes.
I imagined Dan not only challenged by the end of his factory job, but divorced at age 50, his kids grown and gone. All the things that once defined this silent, emotionless man–job, marriage, parenthood–are all gone. And his hometown is increasingly unrecognizable. To make him feel even shittier, the lone way he finds to survive is to “undress,” as Dan puts it, the town’s historic identity, to be sold off at antique stores before the rest is sent to a landfill.
But there in that house, in that barn, and on that land, Dan Reynolds finds redemption.
“A broken man, an abandoned house, and a lonely woman—all the makings for a beautiful, haunting tale of loss, forgiveness, and redemption. The Salvage Man is a lovely, bitter sweet story you won’t soon forget. I loved it!”