Sunday, March 16, 2014

Detroit: An American Autopsy

Despite living in Michigan for the past 22 years, I don't know much more about Detroit than the average American. I've only been there three times, each a short overnight visit. And after reading Charlie LeDuff's memoir, Detroit: An American Autopsy, I can't say I'm any better informed.

Detroit, LeDuff tells us over and over again, is a hellhole. He writes of his childhood on Joy Road in Livonia, a near suburb of Detroit. And the road name is basically the only joy in the book. LeDuff's Detroit is sordid, saturated with murder, corruption, cronyism, drugs, and despair. Those hipsters, urban farmers and young entrepreneurs you've heard are flocking to Detroit? LeDuff apparently hasn't met them.

This reads like a 1940s crime noir novel, with LeDuff playing the role of hard-edged gumshoe, which in his case is reporter for the Detroit News, the job he holds for most of the story. LeDuff is the lead character in a gritty tale of frozen corpses, murdered strippers, crooked politicians, incompetent business executives, heroic firefighters, shattered families, and LeDuff's ever-present cigarette. There's even a scene with a cop in a hat and trench coat.

In the prologue, LeDuff calls this a "book of reportage," but this is not a typical work of journalism. This is a memoir of the reporting he did in his two years with the News. He goes behind the scenes to show his work in getting the stories, with a lot of personal information thrown in. LeDuff doesn't bother with any kind of meta-analysis to explain Detroit's decline, aside from some references to the legacies of racism. There are no footnotes, and some conversations are clearly reconstructed from memory, unless it is LeDuff's habit to take notes while drinking.

Reading this book felt a little like rubbernecking at a major accident. It offended my ideals of journalism, strained my credulity at times, and, in one chapter, made me grateful to not be married to LeDuff. Yet, I couldn't stop reading. I finished this in less than 24 hours, closing it only to eat or sleep. I can't wait to discuss it at book group.

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