Detroit: An American Autopsy by Charlie LeDuff starts out dramatically when the author is gassing up and has to pull a gun out to protect himself from dangerous men who appear out of no where.
Detroit is an abandoned city, according to LeDuff. Abandoned by the white and black middle class.
Abandoned by jobs. Abandoned by the government. Abandoned by 911; you aren’t sure anyone will come if you have an emergency.
In the title we see that LeDuff suggests Detroit is a dead city. It’s not dead, but the Detroit he grew up in is.
It’s a city with thousands of unsolved homicides. It’s a city that can’t keep its lights on. It’s the arson capital of the United States. Judges let violent criminals walk. Multinational companies poison their fields. Elected officials loot the city. Incompetent auto executives destroy the industry that made it rich and famous. Firefighters can’t even afford a screen door. Suspected terrorists are just thugs. The Police manipulate crime statistics to make themselves look better.
It’s one gritty scene after another.
There are fascinating vignettes about corrupt city officials, including City Councilwoman Monica Conyers and Mayor Kwami Kilpatrick, who both were on the take in the city and have spent or are spending some time in jail.
Why would a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist like LeDuff be working at the Detroit News Press? It was a choice. He gave up the dream job at the New York Times because he loved his city, a city that he has long and deep roots in.
LeDuff is hard on Detroit, but he’s even harder on himself writing about smashing a pizza in his wife’s face and getting thrown in jail, or his sister becoming a prostitute and suffering an early death to name a few tragedies in a city full of them.
Is this a balanced portrait of the city? He doesn’t mention anything good going on, particularly the artist and music communities; but he says that that’s not news. That’s the way things are supposed to be.
It’s a dystopian world for the reader. What pulls this together is the master prose and naked storytelling. It’s also an important historical memoir on what can happen to the best of cities and people. This book is a bright light shining on the darkness of the motor city with a dash of Raymond Chandler.
“Go ahead and laugh at Detroit,” LeDuff writes, “Because you are laughing at yourself.”
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