Book Review: Detroit: An American Autopsy
If I had been spending less of my recent news-reading time on sports, I might’ve known the name of Charlie LeDuff, a newspaper journalist who won a Pulizer Prize as a staff writer with the New York Times and authored two other books before he decided to return to his native Detroit and take a job as a reporter for the Detroit News.
LeDuff’s latest book, Detroit: An American Autopsy, is a first-person tale that begins with his return to his home town and his start with the News. His core thesis is that the story of Detroit, with its glorious rise and massive collapse, is the story of America. Detroit’s rise may have been more glorious than many cities, and its collapse more massive than all of them, but it was a leader of a national trend on the way up, and, LeDuff believes, it’s a coal-mine canary for the rest of us on the way down.
While LeDuff’s basic premise is a rejection of Detroit exceptionalism, it is difficult to ignore how exceptionally bad conditions are in the Motor City.
Once the nation’s richest city, Detroit is now its poorest. It is the country’s illiteracy and dropout capital, where children must leave their books at school and bring toilet paper from home. It is the unemployment capital, where half the adult population does not work at a consistent job. There are firemen with no boots, cops with no cars, teachers with no pencils, city council members with telephones tapped by the FBI, and too many grandmothers with no tears left to give.
A newly hired autoworker will earn $14 an hour. This, adjusted for inflation, is three cents less than what Henry Ford was paying in 1914 when he announced the $5 day. And, of course, Ford isn’t hiring.
Charlie LeDuff, Detroit: An American Autopsy, 5-6 (The Penguin Press 2013). “Murder capital, arson capital, poverty capital, unemployment capital, illiteracy capital, foreclosure capital, segregation capital, mayoral scandal capital . . . .” Id. at 70.
There’s more: “Detroit has the ignominious distinction of being the only American city to have been occupied by the United States army three times.” Id. at 43. It’s also the only American city that has had a population of over one million people (1.9 million in the 1950s) and subsequently contracted to below one million (fewer than 700,000 today). Id. at 45. Today, there are enough vacant lots to hold a city the size of Manhattan and San Francisco combined. Id. at 5. A substantial proportion of Detroit’s buildings are vacant, 62,000 of which are homes. Id. at 53. That the city filed for bankruptcy protection last week is the least surprising data point of all.
This book is hardly all data and statistics, though. There is a reason LeDuff is an award-winning journalist: he is good at finding stories, and he is good at telling stories. The stories here are public and personal: political corruption, the deaths of family members, severely underfunded public safety departments, underemployed siblings, arson as popular entertainment, marriage problems, a frozen body in an abandoned building, professional problems, death, and ancestry.
LeDuff has the ability to tell deeply personal stories at a fast pace. The book moves along quickly, even as the stench of civic and human death– mixed with the humorous, the heartwarming, and the raw, to be sure– mounts. While I’m becoming convinced that the only worthy use of the word “gonzo” in the journalistic setting is as shorthand for “Hunter S. Thompson,” I also think LeDuff is the best we’ve got in that space anymore, minus the smack-induced imaginations and partisanship (cf. Charles Pierce), and plus some red wine and a bit more focus and organization. Even if LeDuff sounds a little extreme at times, his voice is authentic, and the extremity of the reality he’s sharing certainly warrants some extremity on his part.
(After initially thinking I was unfamiliar with LeDuff, I later realized I knew of him from such events as the first, and only, “I ♥ the D” Golf Invitational, in which he golfs the length of the city, telling the stories he encounters along the way. It makes for good video, which is what LeDuff is doing since leaving the News for a local network news affiliate. Much of his video reportage is available here.)
I want to write that Detroit is a must-read for everyone, but there’s a simpler concluding admonition: ignore this book at your own peril. It’s compelling, informative, and entertaining, and I’m not sure we can ask much more of literature, particularly of the nonfiction variety.