Detroit: An American Autopsy by Charlie LeDuff
Before beginning my review of Charlie LeDuff’s Detroit: An American Autopsy (2013) it might be helpful to give a little personal background. My wife is from the Detroit suburbs. I first visited the city in 2006 and have been back many times. In spite of all its problems, I do love the city and am happy to call it home when I’m in the US. So, when my father-in-law bought me a copy of LeDuff’s bestselling, deeply personal view of Detroit, I was looking forward to reading it. Unfortunately, work commitments meant that I just didn’t have the time until just last week. After spending a night flashing the hash, I was rushed to hospital with abdominal pains and told that I needed my appendix removed. I read the book restricted to a hospital bed, doped up to my eyeballs, which you might argue is the perfect way to learn about Detroit.
LeDuff is a Detroit native who, like many of his fellow Detroiters, left the city in search of a better life and career. He has enjoyed a distinguished career as a journalist, contributing to a Pulitzer prize winning New York Times series and winning the Meyer Berger award. However, after finding himself somewhat bored with the direction of his career, LeDuff began to feel an irresistible urge to write about his hometown. But the big newspapers were not interested:
No thanks, they told me. Detroit was nothing. Besides, the newspaper and magazine businesses were crumbling and the last thing any executive editor was willing to do was spend the money to open a boutique bureau in Dead City.
LeDuff finally secured a position at the Detroit News, a newspaper whose money problems mirrored those of the city itself. The offices were dimly lit and LeDuff had to get use to broken chairs, broken tables and computers that didn’t work. Given his rather uncomfortable working conditions, it is perhaps no surprise that LeDuff has written an unconventional and eccentric book. If you are looking for a scholarly, chronological history of Detroit, then this is not the book for you. LeDuff begins on the day he was covering a ghoulish story – the discovery of a corpse encased in ice at the bottom of an elevator shaft in an abandoned building – and then jumps back to the riots of 1967, charting the history of the city from the corrupt mayoralty of Coleman Young to the recent ultra-corrupt mayoralty of Kwame Kilpatrick. Like many Detroiters, LeDuff has personally suffered from the decline of the city. His sister fell in with a group of bikers and became a prostitute. She died in a car crash. LeDuff also writes candidly and movingly about one time when his marriage was on the rocks, and he came close to committing a serious act of domestic abuse. There are many sad and sickening stories in this book, but there is also a great deal of humour in the indignation:
I was going to find out who was responsible for the outrage of murderers walking free while the city burned night after night. I was going to become a real reporter. Someone had to answer for this shit. The dignified burial of Johnnie Dollar and the demolition of Harris’s death house gave me confidence. The people of Greater Detroit deserved better than to be robbed by their leaders and forgotten by their neighbors.
I threw my cigarette butt into the sewer grate. I looked up into the rain. That’s when a bird shit in my face.
The chapters on Mayor Kilpatrick and his venal, money-grubbing minion Monica Conyers are particularly good. For readers not familiar with Kilpatrick, he is probably one of the most corrupt politicians in American history and is currently serving twenty-eight years in prison. Although LeDuff is on shaky legal ground when he explores longstanding rumours that a stripper, Tamara Greene, was assaulted by Kilpatrick’s wife Carlita at the Manoogian Mansion party. Greene was later murdered in a drive-by shooting and some commentators suggested a political conspiracy. Far-fetched? Yes, but in Detroit anything’s possible. Still, there’s something rather pathetic about Kilpatrick and Conyers, which makes it impossible to view them as complete villains. LeDuff reproduces text messages between Kilpatrick and chief of staff and lover Christine Beatty which are just hilarious, as LeDuff puts it:
While lacking meter and polish, the fire and passion in their electronified love sonnets must surely rate with those of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning.
All in all, a fascinating and funny book. In an odd way, it made me look forward to going back to Detroit.