American Losers

Fortuitous timing, coupled with my inability to leave a bookstore empty-handed, caused me to pick up Charlie LeDuff’s new book, Detroit: An American Autopsy. The only thing fortuitous was my timing because, as everyone has heard by now, Detroit has filed for bankruptcy. Suddenly Detroit has taken on a symbolic importance. The bankruptcy itself, being too recent, doesn’t make it into LeDuff’s book, however the symbolism of Detroit does.

No one cared much about Detroit until the Dow collapsed in 2008…. Detroit became epic, historic, symbolic, hip even. I began to get calls from reporters around the world wondering what the city was like, what was happening here…. Was Detroit an outlier or an epicenter? Was Detroit a symbol of the greater decay?

A page later he answers the question:

Go ahead and laugh at Detroit. Because you are laughing at yourself.

LeDuff starts out by explaining how he once worked for the most prestigious newspaper in the country, New York Times. Throughout the book, he clearly enjoys writing about ordinary people and he tried to do so at the Times.

The editor called the farmers and hunters and drive-through attendants and factory workers I wrote about losers.

….

Losers. That was 80 percent of the country, and the new global economic structure was cranking out more.

He makes a bid for why we should have an interest in his losers, especially those in Detroit, like the one he starts the book with, a man dead, frozen in a block of ice at the bottom of an elevator shaft in an abandoned building:

At the end of the day, the Detroiter may be the most important American there is because no one knows better than he that we’re all standing at the edge of the shaft.

LeDuff’s got style. I confess I’ve always had a weakness for hard-boiled prose, terse sentences and vivid images. First, however, I wanted to know, is this hard-boiled stance, this attitude of having been around the block in some less than savory neighborhoods, legitimately earned or an affectation. Within the first couple of chapters I decided it was legitimate. Even if it wasn’t I might have forgiven it because it does make the book a lively read.

LeDuff grew up in a nearby suburb of Detroit and much of his family still lives there. He makes it clear throughout that he identifies with the place. He becomes a character in his own story. Sometimes, this can come across as a writer photobombing their own book. In Detroit, it works because, at times, it’s almost as much a memoir as a work of reportage.

There’s something just a bit peculiar about reading a book about Detroit while sitting in Baltimore. Mention of one seems to bring about thoughts of the other. Even The New York Times’ review feels a need to make a comparison. LeDuff’s “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….” LeDuff himself makes a few mentions of Baltimore as well, not that he appears to know much about it beyond its reputation as yet another washed up city that’s lost almost half its population. On the other hand, the people in Baltimore are most certainly not laughing at the people in Detroit. We’re holding our breath.

In the wake of the bankruptcy, the left and the right are battling it out to write the story of what happened to the city of Detroit and why. LeDuff tells a different story, a more specific one that puts a face on all those numbers, one that tells us why we’re even supposed to care.

I hope it comes out in a cheap paperback edition and gets a second chance to sit on the display table of the bookstore.

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