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Detroit: An American Autopsy


I finished Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty three days ago. A marvelous, imaginative blend of history and fiction on the Soviet economy of the 1950s and 1960s, however unlikely such a combination may sound. I should say more, but I’m on to the next book, Charlie LeDuff’s Detroit: An American Autopsy.

I can’t resist books about contemporary Detroit. There was Mark Binelli’s Detroit City Is the Place to Be: The Afterlife of an American Metropolis last November, which I wrote about here and here. Before that, Paul Clemens’Punching Out: One Year in a Closing Auto Plant, and before that, his superb Made in Detroit: A South of 8 Mile Memoir. (See here and here.) Once I read my first review of LeDuff’s book, I knew I would find my way to it sooner or later.

Sooner, as it turns out. I’m halfway through now.

LeDuff was a NYT reporter—part of a Pulitzer-Prize-winning team—but left the paper in 2007 and made his way back home to Detroit, where he began writing for The Detroit News. The book arose from pieces he wrote for the paper. It comprises many short chapters describing a wide variety of characters and incidents, with LeDuff’s own family story as a connecting thread.

In one passage, LeDuff comments on complaints that he focused

on the negative in a city with so much good. What about all the galleries and museums and music? they complained in a flurry of e-mails and blogs. What about the good things?

It was a fair point. There are plenty of good people in Detroit. Tens of thousands of them. Hundreds of thousands. There are lawyers and doctors and auto executives with nice homes and good jobs and community elders trying to make things better, teachers who spend their own money on the classroom, people who mow lawns out of respect for the dead neighbor, parents who raise their children, ministers who help with funeral expenses.

But these things are not supposed to be news. These things are supposed to be normal. And when normal things become the news, the abnormal becomes the norm. And when that happens, you might as well put a fork in it.

What galleries and museums have to do with a dead man is beyond me. Writing about sh*t like that in the city we were living in seemed equal to writing about the surf conditions while reporting in the Gaza strip.

As for the book reviews that led me to LeDuff, Paul Clemens wrote the recent one in the Sunday NYT. Another native Detroiter, Thomas Lynch, tackled the book for the WSJ:

A little gonzo, a little gumshoe, some gawker, some good-Samaritan—it is hard to ignore reporting like Mr. LeDuff’s, even if he seems to think that history happens mostly whenever and wherever he goes looking for it. … His boldness serves the book well, however, as he is willing to connect the dots between the derelict city, its feckless and malfeasant political class, and the nation’s general fall from grace.

Lynch concludes:

For 300 years, the city has been a study in human enterprise and industry, and hometown to the creative, inventive and restorative arts. Those who have underestimated Detroit’s resilience, from Chief Pontiac to Mitt Romney, have come to grief. Detroit, Mr. LeDuff reminds us, has plenty to go around.

And if he wants to be the cover boy of the current story, he has, on the evidence, earned the right. Whether the fate of Detroit is global, national, regional or local news remains to be seen. But its grim and hopeful narrative, told here by a reliable witness, is more than worthy of careful consideration.

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