Sunday, September 17, 2017

A Review Of Charlie LeDuff's Detroit


‘Detroit: An American Autopsy,’ by Charlie LeDuff

FEB. 22, 2013, NYT

Detroit is one of those taxing places that require you to have an opinion about them. This opinion expresses no mere preference. It amounts to a stance, from which may be inferred your electoral leanings, your racial politics, your union sympathies and the general sunniness of your disposition. 

The entire city signifies. It can get tiring.

No Parisian is as impatient with American mispronunciation, no New Yorker as disdainful of tourists needing directions, as is a certain strand of born-and-bred Detroiter with the optimism of recent arrivals and their various schemes for the city’s improvement. You’re right, some of these abandoned spaces are big enough to farm. Yes, something interesting could be done with the train station. It’s an exasperation summed up by Mike Carlisle, a homicide detective in Charlie LeDuff’s often terrific “Detroit: An American Autopsy.” “It’s a dead city,” Carlisle says. “And anybody says any different doesn’t know what . . . he’s talking about.”

LeDuff knows what he’s talking about, and as his subtitle makes plain, he’s squarely in the Carlisle camp. It’s risky territory these days, as LeDuff is well aware. His background as a newsman (he’s a former reporter for The Detroit News and The New York Times), his move into television (he’s now a reporter for a local station) and his encompassing sense of civic outrage can remind one of David Simon. 

But whereas Simon earned liberal accolades for exposing Baltimore’s underbelly in “The Wire,” in Detroit such a focus can seem, if not politically conservative, at least culturally retrograde — a backward stance. The relentless exposure of violence, corruption and their consequent thwarting of human potential — the traditional staple of the reporter-as-progressive-advocate — goes largely unappreciated by the city’s statistically small but culturally ascendant creative-class boosters. Though almost invariably liberal, they wish to accentuate Detroit’s positives, and will claim, correctly, that LeDuff’s book is unbalanced.

But balance is not always a literary virtue, and many of the best American books are notable for their lack of equilibrium. Quite a few, in fact, are flat-out bonkers, and LeDuff spends much of “Detroit” — “a book of reportage,” he says, “a memoir of a reporter returning home” — in a near-manic state.

In the reportage column, we get Detective Carlisle working “in a city with more than 11,000 unsolved homicides dating back to 1960.” We get firefighters risking (and, in one case, losing) life and limb to save abandoned structures — some of which, including the frequently ablaze Packard plant, might be better left, at long last, to burn down. 

We get the incomparable former city councilwoman Monica Conyers — “the perfect political caricature wrapped up in a real human being” — who, if I read it right, attempts unsuccessfully to seduce LeDuff. After politics, she tells him, “I’d like to design brassieres for plus-size women.” (After politics, she’d serve time.) And, inevitably, we get the former mayor, and frequent defendant, Kwame Kilpatrick: “It was as sad as it was appalling: a black city in which the most prominent leader plundered, pillaged and lied, all the while presenting himself as its guardian angel against the White Devil.”

But what does LeDuff really think of Detroit? “It is awful here, there is no other way to say it.” Not that the city’s awfulness is new. In fact, “it was never that good in the first place.” Now, though, it’s “an archaeological ruin.” He’s past finding the city “frightening anymore. It was empty and forlorn and pathetic.”

It’s certainly no great place to grow up, and LeDuff puts that pessimism to productive use when he writes, movingly, of 7-year-old Aiyana Stanley-Jones, killed in a mistaken police raid, and of Keiara Bell, a 13-year-old who chides Conyers for calling then Council President Kenneth Cockrel Jr. “Shrek.” Bell is one of the book’s heroes. “I’m ashamed,” she says when LeDuff visits her at home. “I’m ashamed to be poor. And I’m ashamed to live here. And I don’t know if I’m ever going to get out. I just want to move away.

The book’s memoir sections detail LeDuff’s upbringing in working-class suburban Westland (“the only city in the world that renamed itself after its shopping mall”). The family teetered on the edge of disrepute, with LeDuff’s beloved sister a teenage runaway and sometime streetwalker who died a too-early death (as did her daughter, of a heroin overdose, years later) and his brothers high school dropouts, one of whom “got lost in the blizzard of the ’80s crack cocaine epidemic.” 

The family was held together by LeDuff’s mother, “militantly loyal and rabidly Catholic,” who worked in an east side flower shop. The adult struggles of LeDuff’s brothers are exemplified by Billy, who made good money “shuffling subprime mortgages” during the boom and, after the bust, found work in a screw factory making $8.50 an hour and “living the nightmare of every suburban white guy.”

It’s typically considered polite, at this point, to express regret that this book — about a city that is more than 80 percent black — is written by a suburban white guy.

Except LeDuff himself is black, in an Elizabeth Warren sort of way. A grandfather, he learns, was “mulatto,” making the white guy pictured on the book’s cover — and referred to therein as “a white boy,” “Whitey,” “Mister Charlie” and “just a redneck” — “the palest black man in Michigan.” LeDuff doesn’t know what to make of this late-in-life discovery (“How much of anything am I?”), and no one else much cares. “Black people . . . would simply wave me off with a go-away-white-boy smirk. White folks laughed and called me Tyrone.”

It’s necessary, at times, to separate LeDuff’s reporting from his writing. His reporting is immersive, patient. His writing just about bursts from revved-up impatience. Too many lines want to be lines. “The feds had been laying more wire in Detroit than the cable guy.” “The strain was showing on Monica Conyers like a cheap cocktail dress.” “Players were going through phone numbers like they were Chiclets.” 

When sentiment and style sync — “Detroit is full of good people who know what pain is” — you’re reminded of how solid a writer he can be when he plays it simple and straight. You suspect that Reporter LeDuff, who notes the shoulder pads in Kilpatrick’s suits, would distrust the occasionally puffed-up nature of Writer LeDuff’s prose.

Many city supporters will object to the “autopsy” in the subtitle, though it’s not the suggestion of civic death that rankles. Rather, it’s the suggestion of the surgically precise. LeDuff notes that whatever its racial makeup, the Detroit Fire Department’s spirit is Irish, and much the same can be said of this book and its author. “Detroit” is not an autopsy; it’s a wake — drunk, teary, self-dramatizing, sincerely sorry, bighearted and just a bit full of it. What’s the point of being from Detroit if you don’t know the world’s going to break your heart?

LeDuff returns, by the book’s end, to the bar where his sister was last seen, only to find it unrecognizable. A black man outside explains the changes. “They trying to put something nice up” in this hellhole, he says, speaking of the bar specifically, though his words spread across the city and pay tribute, in equal measure, to its dreamers, its pessimists and to those, resigned and wrung out, who love it despite all. “Can’t say it’s working. 

But what you gonna do? You ain’t gonna be reincarnated, so you got to do the best you can with the moment you got. Do the best you can and try to be good.” LeDuff has done his best, and his book is better than good.

An American Autopsy
By Charlie LeDuff
Illustrated. 286 pp. The Penguin Press. $27.95.

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