Some of you may know that I’m currently up to my ears in grad school applications. Luckily, posting on The Millions has a salutary effect on me, and also, I just finished a book, so I need to write about it. Jamesland opens with Alice, great-granddaughter of philosopher William James, having an odd waking dream of a deer in her house. Alice fixates on the deer as a portent of a coming change in her life, and the very next day her life begins to change slowly and inexorably. The book does not dwell on the supernatural, though it does have a bemused dialogue with the otherworldly throughout. Mostly it is about three forty-somethings whose social and professional lives are deteriorating and reconfiguring. I’d call it a mid-life crisis, but these characters have that quality, peculiar to Californians, of being youthful, unserious adults. The book is mostly set on the East Side of Los Angeles in neighborhoods that I know well. It was great to read a book that addresses a somewhat larger Los Angeles than usual. Movie stars are around, and Hollywood is nearby, but they are just parts of the great stew of the city, things that are noticed but after a while not accorded any greater importance than things like Griffith Park or the LA River. The only other book that I have read that successfully turns LA’s flashy side into just another bit of peripheral scenery is T.C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain. Huneven is well-known in Los Angeles as the food critic for the LA Weekly, and the way she writes about food in this book is magnificent. Pete (who along with Helen, a modern sort of minister, are the other two wayward adults) is a former near-celebrity chef who is recovering from a nervous breakdown, suicide attempt combo. His character is both abrasive and charming, the type of person who makes you nervous the moment he steps into the room. As he coaxes himself back into the functioning world, he takes up cooking again, and this is the venue for Huneven’s descriptions of foods. It was nice to see that Huneven did not place this book firmly in the world of food and restaurants in the way that many writers tend to crib from their day jobs. Instead, Huneven manages to weave her knowledge skillfully into the larger narrative. The book itself is a rather satisfying meal, best taken over a few languorous days on a sunny balcony or sitting on a park bench.
Through a horrific half-century of decline, Detroit has become one of the most blighted cities in America. It has also become one of the most misunderstood — a victim of misread history, media clichés, self-serving racial rhetoric, corporate and political indifference, and crime and corruption that can still get downright rococo.
But lately there have been encouraging signs that people are starting to get Detroit, a necessary first step if the hoped-for renaissance is to take place. Not only do these people understand what the city means and what happened to it, but they’re able to believe that the city has a future beyond bankruptcy, abandonment, and physical decay. There is not a Pollyanna or a Romantic in this crowd. Nor is there anyone willing to succumb to despair. They’re a reminder that Detroiters are, first and last, survivors.
One of the freshest of these voices belongs to Mark Binelli, a native Detroiter whose 2012 book, Detroit City Is the Place to Be: The Afterlife of an American Metropolis, debunked many of the myths about the city’s past while offering a clear-eyed assessment of its current disarray and future prospects. No, Binelli points out, the 1967 riot — or rebellion, depending on your political persuasion — did not start white flight. And no, Mayor Coleman Young did not singlehandedly bring the city to its knees any more than a handful of white hipsters are going to singlehandedly get it back on its feet. Considerably darker, but also free of worn-out assumptions, was Charlie LeDuff’s Detroit: An American Autopsy from 2013, which didn’t hesitate to pick at the city’s abundant scabs, but also offered strangely heart-warming truths like this: “Detroit is full of good people who know what pain is.”
Then there was Paul Clemens’s 2005 memoir, Made In Detroit, which tells what it was like to grow up white in a city that became predominantly black in 1973, the year Clemens was born, the year Young was elected the city’s first black mayor. Among the book’s many insights is that Detroit has always been a raw place, no matter what color your skin happens to be or who happens to be in charge. He invokes Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night: “After leaving behind World War I battlefields, Paris slums, and malarial African jungles, Céline’s restless narrator makes his way to the Motor City, to work in the Ford factory. At the beginning of the first Detroit chapter, he says, in an observation yet to be improved upon: ‘It was even worse than everywhere else.’” And that was in the 1920s, when the city was booming.
The latest addition to this growing body of wised-up writing is a scintillating new collection called A Detroit Anthology, published by Rust Belt Chic Press (which has also brought out companion volumes about Cleveland and Cincinnati). It’s a lively stew of reportage, poetry, memoir, photography, personal essays, and fictionalized observation. There is no cheap nostalgia or breathless boosterism. There are remarkably few mentions of cars, but plenty of talk about sports, race, families, neighborhoods, music, and history. In fact, the book’s greatest strength is the various ways the contributors acknowledge that understanding Detroit’s history is the key to understanding its current condition and its possible ways forward. In Detroit, more than most places, the past will never be past.
This is brought home in Steven Pomerantz’s essay, “Fort Gratiot,” the heart-breaking story about the hardware store his father and uncle, the sons of immigrant Russian Jews, ran on the city’s east side from 1948 to 1979 — years that neatly bookend the city’s peak and its slide. Pomerantz writes knowingly about the symbiosis of Jewish merchants and their black customers in the inner-city, a dance as old and itchy as America itself:
This much everybody understood, and it formed the basis for an uneasy alliance — they needed each other too much to let their mutual dislike get in the way. But as always in these types of things, it was more complicated than that. The neighborhood black community was made up of my father’s friends and enemies. They were the source of his livelihood and the bane of his existence.
When flames and rage engulfed the city in July of 1967, many black merchants spray-painted badges on their buildings — SOUL BROTHER and AFRO ALL THE WAY — in the hope that arsonists would pass them by. Sometimes they did, sometimes they didn’t. In any event, the Jewish hardware store on Gratiot remained untouched, for reasons that will never be known. “My father attributed this to his good relations with the black community,” Pomerantz writes, “but it could have been just dumb luck.” In a bitter irony, the business failed not because of racism or crime or white flight, but because Pomerantz’s uncle spent years embezzling money from his own brother.
This book also offers many small grace notes as counterpoints to such big moments. The essay “Turner Ronald Carter the Third” by Kat Harrison is a touching story about a black girl’s awakening to the shocking realization that a white playmate regards her as inferior. This hits home the day the boy, always friendly, marches onto her front yard, unzips his pants, urinates on the shrubbery, then runs home without a word. “In later years, my musings about Turner’s defiant and deviant act led me to think that he was the weapon his parents used to register their displeasure with the arrival of unwanted colored neighbors,” Harrison writes. “How sad and cowardly it was to use a child to insult another child, neither of whom could have possibly understood the motivations and bigger issues at play.”
In “Awakening,” Maisha Hyman Sumbry is rescued from the boredom of waiting for the school bus by a magical blast of Run-DMC, courtesy of a passing Dodge Charger with a powerful sound system. And in “Playing Ball,” J.M. Leija explains her love for her hometown Tigers this way: “The people, the city, it’s all just a little bit easier when we’re playing ball.”
The contributors to A Detroit Anthology range from first-time authors to seasoned professionals, which gives the collection its free-wheeling, anything-goes feel. But it’s not flawless. In the essay “I’m From Detroit,” Shannon Shelton Miller writes scornfully about how suburbanites (that is, white people) know virtually nothing about the city or the people who live there (that is, black people). There’s some truth to the point, but it’s part of the tired old merry-go-round that helped bring Detroit low in the first place. It comes out of territoriality, provincialism, tribalism. It’s about us vs. them, and in Detroit there’s an almost laughable abundance of such dividing lines: city vs. suburbs; black vs. white; labor vs. management; Republican vs. Democrat; foreign vs. domestic; even west side vs. east side. To Miller’s way of thinking, 8 Mile Road is the great line in the sand, the DMZ between the city and its northern suburbs, between the courageous few who chose to stay and the multitudes who opted to flee. But as Steven Pomerantz knows, it’s more complicated than that.
I have lived north of 8 Mile and I have lived south of 8 Mile – I have lived all over the world, for that matter – and I can report that vice and virtue have nothing to do with geography or race. Zip codes and skin color confer nothing.
This harping on geography — and its subtexts — reminds me of a common encounter I had when I lived in the South. When Southerners heard my flat Midwestern accent — no syrup, no drawl — they often asked a question that was not altogether friendly: “Where you from, anyway?” The subtext was obvious: You’re not one of us, so you’re automatically suspect. Asking me where I was from was the wrong question. The right question would have been: What are you made of? Or better yet: What’s in your heart?
But “I’m From Detroit” is a rare misstep. The consistently high tone of A Detroit Anthology can be credited to Anna Clark, the book’s editor, who grew up in western Michigan and has lived in Detroit since 2007, working as a freelance journalist. “There’s a lot of misunderstanding about who lives here, what happens and what doesn’t happen here,” Clark told me in a telephone interview. “But the thing I wanted to do with this anthology was get past the stance that we’re going to explain this city. I wanted to get the candid conversations Detroiters have with other Detroiters — diverse and true and candid conversations people have at a dinner table or in a bar.”
By that measure, the book is a thrilling success. It gives voice to people who now live or once lived in this fascinating, tortured place, the survivors, good people who know what pain is, people who understand that the city exerts an undying pull on them. Or as Philip Levine, the great poet of Detroit, once put it, Detroiters are people “who live at all cost and come back for more, and who if they bore tattoos — a gesture they don’t need — would have them say, ‘Don’t tread on me’ or ‘Once more with feeling’ or “No pasarán’ or ‘Not this pig.’”
In his new book, Griftopia, Matt Taibbi tries to portray America as a thieve’s paradise, where foreign and domestic moneyed interests fleece the rest of us in the open and we are powerless to resist. Taibbi covers politics and, more recently, the financial crisis for Rolling Stone, and Griftopia is primarily a compilation of his recent feature stories. It’s an entertaining but ultimately frustrating and unsatisfying read, long on adjectives and invective but sorely lacking depth of analysis or reporting. Ultimately, Taibbi undermines himself: his assertions of fact, even regarding core points, often are colored past reality and occasionally are simply, provably wrong, discrediting the wild-eyed conclusions he reaches based on them.
Prior to the financial crisis, some of Taibbi’s best-known work, collected in previous books, involved politics and campaigns. This work, in tone as much as subject matter, implicitly invokes that of Hunter S. Thompson, who famously covered politics for Rolling Stone during the Nixon years, although Taibbi’s book on the 2004 campaign, Spanking the Donkey, pales in comparison to Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, probably the high point of Thompson’s career. Thompson’s stories often were filled with foul-mouthed, fractured and impossibly weird or vile allegations regarding its subjects, expanding or exploding reality to reflect some otherwise-inaccessible greater Truth. There doesn’t seem to be any greater Truth beyond the paranoia of Taibbi’s furious language, but in these Glenn Beck and Stephen Colbert days, what does it matter? Fear sells.
The emotional core of the book lies in a rant that closes a chapter describing the creation and progression of the mortgage crisis:
At the tail end of all this frantic lying, cheating, and scamming on all sides, … the final result is that we all ended up picking up the tab, subsidizing all this crime and dishonesty and pessimism as a matter of national policy.
We paid for this instead of a generation of health insurance, or an alternative energy grid, or a brand-new system of roads and highways. With the $13-plus trillion we are estimated to ultimately spend on the bailouts, we could not only have bought and paid off every single subprime mortgage in the country (that would only have cost $1.4 trillion), we could have paid off every remaining mortgage of any kind in this country — and still have had enough money left over to buy a new house for every American who does not already have one.
But we didn’t do that, and we didn’t spend the money on anything else useful, either. Why? For a very good reason. Because we’re no good any more at building bridges and highways or coming up with brilliant innovations in energy or medicine. We’re shit now at finishing massive public works projects or launching brilliant fairy-tale public policy ventures like the moon landing.
What are we good at? Robbing what’s left. When it comes to that, we Americans have no peer.
Well, if he’s right, then America is truly Fucked. Time to hit the road, bub. Luckily for us, however, Taibbi is dead wrong about the $13 trillion figure, and, as a result, America may not be hopeless after all.
Sure, it’s been reported that the total potential cost of the bailouts is $12.8 trillion, true, but the crucial word there is “potential.” $12.8 trillion is the potential total cost if every dollar the government pledged or loaned were actually paid out and never paid back.
But that’s not what’s happening. Much of the money loaned already has been repaid, and on some of the constituent “bailouts,” the government actually may make a profit. And, likewise, much of the money used to guarantee assets will never be tapped. This is a good thing for America. And it’s also a distinction that a professional reporter who has been knee-deep in the financial crisis should have recognized before proclaiming the moral bankruptcy of the country. It would be a devastating passage if it weren’t fundamentally untrue.
Look, I agree with Taibbi, at least in spirit, on some issues he raises, but if you’re going to be caustic and depressing and a brutal buzzkill I think you have a responsibility to make sure your facts are correct, especially a fact that forms the crux of both the chapter it ends and of the central depressing accusations of the entire book. And because the subjects Taibbi covers – securitized mortgage instruments, the commodity markets, etc., — are hyper-complex, I had trouble putting any faith in Taibbi’s understanding and descriptions of the details once I noticed that he whiffed on a few of those that I already understood.
Taibbi carries his populist flag throughout the book, and in the final chapter acknowledges proudly that class warfare is one of his goals while asserting that those who panned his Goldman Sachs article were with Them in this great battle, and not Us, claiming that the criticisms of his piece amounted to nothing more than a defense of “class privilege.” Like so much else in Griftopia, this is fun and entertaining, sure, but lazy. Had Taibbi’s article been about “class privilege” and seriously wrestled with the structure and institutions of the American economy that led to the problems he identified, it explicitly or implicitly would have suggested solutions. Instead, Taibbi aims for the fattened ducks operating the levers of power rather than the levers themselves: he seems quite proud, for example, of publicly calling Goldman chief Lloyd Blankfein a “motherfucker.”
Griftopia portrays America as a ghetto being looted by evil drug lords, but a simpler explanation of the financial crisis, to me at least, seems to be the economics of laziness and arrogance. Laziness in entering a trade that is working (here, seemingly safe mortgage bonds) not because it makes sense but because it is easy and arrogance in assuming that you will know precisely when to get out. And the evidence from the last bubble (and the tech bubble before that) seems to be that as good as these Wall Street folks may have been at riding a massive wave to shore, few knew how to pull off before the wave broke.
On Griftopia’s back cover, Taibbi’s publishers praise him via pull quote as supplanting Michael Lewis as the “King Writer of Wall Street.” Not so fast. Lewis’s most recent book, The Big Short, walks the reader through the last few years of economic crisis with a level head and enough detail to allow a reader to understand how decisions that almost brought down the world could have seemed so common sense at the time to those who made them. Lewis’s book handles the complexity of the financial world with both grace and precision. Taibbi’s approach is closer to a drunken swagger: seemingly smooth, but not necessarily precise.
To be fair, Griftopia and The Big Short serve different audiences. Taibbi’s book will be of greatest utility to those who know exactly what they think but aren’t quite sure why. Lewis’s book well serves everyone else.
Bonus Link: Stockholm Syndrome: Two Books on High Finance