Last year I agreed to take on the impossible challenge of singling out the 10 best books about my hometown, Detroit. It was impossible because the Motor City, justly famous for its cars and its music, its muscle and its misery, has also inspired a rich literature — fiction, poetry, history, biography, autobiography, reportage. Undaunted, I picked works by Elmore Leonard, Philip Levine, Loren D. Estleman, Anna Clark, Donald Goines, Mark Binelli, Nelson George, and others, with honorable mention to Thomas Sugrue, Joyce Carol Oates, Scott Martelle, and Ze’ev Chafets.
I’m happy to report that there’s a new applicant for membership in this august club. She’s a young writer named Angela Flournoy, and her debut novel, The Turner House, belongs on the shelf with the very finest books about one of America’s most dynamic, tortured, and resilient cities.
The novel’s title refers to the crumbling edifice on Detroit’s crumbling East Side where Francis and Viola Turner, transplants from Arkansas, raised their rumbustious brood of 13 in a state of scrappy but not unhappy near-poverty. It’s now 2008. Francis is dead, Viola is fading, and as a brutal recession bears down and the city skids toward the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history, the Turner children are scrambling to figure out what to do about the empty family manse. It may be their “sedentary mascot” and their “coat of arms,” but it’s worth about one-10th of what’s owed on it. The debate about the house’s fate hangs over the novel because, like the city that shaped them, the Turner children are a squabbling, nurturing, demanding, forbidding, and complicated crew. This is Detroit. Nothing is simple.
The novel opens on the night in 1958 when the first-born Turner child, 14-year-old Cha-Cha, does battle with a ghost — a haint — that tries to drag him out of his bedroom window. Though several of his siblings witness Cha-Cha tussling with the milky blue spirit, their father lays down the law: “Ain’t no haints in Detroit.”
Years later, Cha-Cha is revisited by the haint while driving a truckload of Chryslers to Chicago, and the resulting accident changes his life. His employer sends him to a shrink named Alice Rothman, whose erotically charged therapy sessions will send ripples through Cha-Cha’s marriage and his relations with his mother and siblings. Cha-Cha’s obsession with finding out the truth about the haint will tear at the fabric of this tight-knit, combative family.
Flournoy, according to the flap copy, is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and she was raised in southern California by a mother from Los Angeles and a father from Detroit. So the vividness of the writing here comes not through lived experience, but through the assimilation of stories told by a parent and other relatives. There are many sentences that nail a sense of place with a precision long-time Detroiters like Elmore Leonard or Donald Goines would have envied: “The last time Lelah saw Vernon, some eight years earlier, he’d been nodding off in the freezing rain on a curb in front of a twenty-four-hour Coney Island on Harper.” And: “The coffee made him jittery by the time work was over, and to help him relax he frequented a blind pig on Saint Antoine and Gratiot where for a nickel a day he rented a little locker to store his own hooch.” Here’s Troy Turner, a Detroit cop, discussing the endemic corruption in city government: “That’s what’s wrong with this city; it ain’t about the mayor. Too many people busy hoping shit will get better to actually figure out a way to make shit better.” And here’s Francis’s baptism when he arrives, alone, in the 1940s looking for work: “After a few thrilling binges of liquor and nightlife, Francis had learned that Detroit, with its overcrowded tenements and crooked bosses and exclusive restaurants downtown, was a lonely, backbreaking city.”
There are cracklingly alive scenes inside pawn shops and factories, casinos and living rooms. Flournoy has a deft touch with the verbal and psychological sparring between spouses, siblings, and parents and children. My two favorite Turner siblings are Cha-Cha, the tortured eldest, and Lelah, the baby with a gambling problem. This is, in the best sense of the word, a domestic novel.
One of Flournoy’s great achievements is that she doesn’t draw attention to the fact that virtually every one of her characters is black. This is just part of the novel’s oxygen and furniture, a Detroit given. Therein lies its quiet strength.
But there are missteps. The constant cutting back and forth in time, between 2008 and the 1940s, becomes a distraction — even though those early years, both in Detroit and Arkansas, are crucial to the story. Maybe the two eras could have been stitched together differently. This is not a plot-driven story, but at times the narrative sags. And while I’m no fan of overly tidy endings, I felt that the climactic family reunion was strangely cursory, and the story shuffled to its conclusion.
None of that takes away from the fact that Angela Flournoy is an exciting new talent whose debut has enriched Detroit’s flowering literature. Read The Turner House, and I’m sure you’ll join me in waiting, eagerly, to see what its gifted author comes up with next.