304 pages, Penguin Press, ISBN-13: 978-1594205347
Charlie LeDuff is a good writer, a strong stylist, and he writes spare, powerful prose from the Gonzo – AKA Hunter S. Thompson – School of journalism. His credentials are impressive: he is a Pulitzer Award winning author and a journalist who embraces confronting the underbelly of the American experience; it’s tormented, its down and out, its outcasts. With the Great Recession of 2008, he feels drawn to go back to his roots in Detroit, which he argues is a microcosm of what is going to happen to the rest of America. He leaves his job at the New York Times, then the Los Angeles Times, and takes a job at the rundown Detroit News, described as moribund with chalk line around his new office area rug that looks like, as he describes, a murder scene.
In his several, short chapters he captures the despair of scandalous politicians, laid-off workers, his own dysfunctional family members, his own dysfunctional marriage, and his own demon-possessed self. In the process, he’s held up by robbers at a gas station; confronts the demons of losing his sister to an untimely death many years ago in Detroit; reports on the murder of a call girl that helps to bring down the corrupt mayor; a sewage scandal; his brother’s dog dies from eating toxic dog food made in China; he finds a dead man frozen in ice; fights with his wife about his obsession with his work and dealing with the darkness…The despair in this book is relentless with no comic respite, and at times I felt there was an egotism that drove LeDuff to almost celebrate this dark madness, as if his graphic descriptions of it would somehow empower him. The end result of these short chapters of brutal anecdotage is some strong pieces that stand well by themselves, but I’m sad to say they don’t add up to much. The chapters lack cohesiveness and we, the readers, who have a grasp of what’s going on in the headlines won’t be shocked by the Great Recession's havoc on people’s personal lives.
I wanted to read more about the city and the individuals who still live there, and while LeDuff delivered, he also spoke a lot about his own Detroit, and the sorrows he fled, and to which he returned. There’s nothing wrong with a memoir; his personal experiences just didn’t shed any light on the city’s general problems. I had the sense that the author’s admiration for Hunter S. Thompson (see above) got the better of him. So while I was eager to read a coherent narrative about a man confronting his personal demons in Motor City, what I got was some disjointed chapters from a man who needs to find a way to shape, refine and package his rage into a more coherent whole.
Detroit: An American Autopsy delivers far less than what was promised. If what you are looking for is a systematic examination and evaluation of how and why Detroit is dying, and how this might serve as a template for the future of other American cities, don’t set your expectations high before reading this book. If, however, you’re OK with selected anecdotal stories and recorded conversations mostly compiled when the author worked at the News (just a brief two year stint), as well as a few more personal stories related to family and ancestral history, then this book may satisfy you. As for me, I would have liked this book much more if the author had spent more time researching and presenting other aspects of the city’s demise – and cut back a bit on the dirty language, clichés, and lengthy verbose conversations (guess he had to fill the pages somehow). Oh yeah, I almost forgot the tiresome noir style.