This year brought forth another crop of terrific books about the D, as we Detroiters refer to our beloved, beleaguered hometown. Here are four of the year’s very best:
The Turner House by Angela Flournoy
When the debut novel The Turner House was published last summer, I wrote a foam-at-the-mouth review because I was smitten by Angela Flournoy’s assured portrait of a sprawling Detroit family’s struggle to deal with their rotting home-place on the city’s rotting east side. The titular house was the family’s “mascot” and “coat of arms,” but as the 2008 recession bears down, it’s empty and worth about one-tenth of what’s owed on it. Through this ingenious lens, Flournoy examines the inner lives of Francis and Viola Flournoy, up from Arkansas, and their rumbustious brood of 13 children –– and, in the bargain, she explores such big topics as the Great Migration and Detroit’s racial divide, as well as the small dramas that take place inside the city’s casinos, pawn shops, and living rooms. It’s a bewitching blend of the grand and the intimate.
I was delighted when The Turner House was named a finalist for this year’s National Book Award for fiction. Though the novel didn’t win, the nomination surely enlarged its pool of readers who, like me, are waiting impatiently to see what the gifted Angela Flournoy comes up with next.
Scrapper by Matt Bell
Matt Bell’s second novel, Scrapper, gets its hands dirty wrestling with Detroit’s abundant wreckage, both material and human. It does this by taking us into the dark and dangerous world of a freelance metal scrapper named Kelly, who works the city’s gutted core, known here as “the zone.” There, one day, he makes a horrific discovery: a naked 12-year-old boy handcuffed to a bed in the sound-proofed basement of an abandoned house. The shock of this discovery complicates Kelly’s life, sends the novel soaring, and breaks the reader’s heart. Working the high wire without a net, Matt Bell has dared to take us into a netherworld rarely visited in even the best books about Detroit.
Once in a Great City by David Maraniss
David Maraniss, a Detroit native, prolific author, and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, came out this year with a joyride of a non-fiction book called Once In a Great City: A Detroit Story. Rather than trying to dissect the many sources of his hometown’s misery, Maraniss goes in the opposite direction: he gives us a Technicolor snapshot of the city at its giddy peak, from late 1962 to early 1964, when the long decline was set in motion but most Detroiters were too busy making money and having fun to notice. The book gives us a compelling cast of characters, from the famous to the obscure, including Martin Luther King Jr., President John F. Kennedy, Henry Ford II, Berry Gordy, Walter Reuther, an infamous prostitute, a beat cop, and a kid playing hooky. As Maraniss writes in his introduction:
It was a time of uncommon possibility and freedom when Detroit created wondrous and lasting things. But life can be luminescent when it is most vulnerable. There was a precarious balance during those crucial months between composition and decomposition, what the world gained and what a great city lost. Even then, some part of Detroit was dying, and that is where the story begins.
How to Live in Detroit Without Being a Jackass by Aaron Foley
Last but not least — and just in time for Christmas — the Cleveland-based independent press Belt Publishing has come out with that rarest oxymoron: a smart how-to book. This one’s author, Aaron Foley, is a Detroit native and current resident who seems to know everything about the city — its history, language, food, fashions, architecture, music, politics, news media, neighborhoods, literature, social customs, and racial minefields — and he has a knack for imparting his vast knowledge in humorous, insightful, helpful prose. The kicker on the cover was enough to make me love the book before I read the first page. Detroit, it announces, is not the new Brooklyn! Having done six years in Brooklyn, my first thought was: Hallelujah.
How to Live in Detroit Without Being a Jackass could not have existed even a few years ago, because it was inspired by and is addressed to the very recent influx of transplants, many of them young and white and creative, who have been drawn to Detroit by the prevailing narrative that the place is cheap, supportive, wide-open, and on the rebound. Foley opens the book with a list of rules for new arrivals, including this cold-eyed satirical stinger:
The fifth rule applies to all you transplants from New York City and other places that are really expensive: please do not consider moving to Detroit part of a deep, soul-touching experience that will wash clean the sins of your past and renew your spiritual energy to live in your new purpose. This ain’t fucking Eat, Pray, Love, OK? You likely moved here because you either wanted to further your career or you got priced out of where you were.
As this quote illustrates, Foley’s mission is both to inform and to amuse, and he does a knockout job of both. Among the many subjects he tackles are how to drive in Detroit, how to be white in Detroit, how to be black in Detroit, how to make peace with the suburbs, how to do business in Detroit, and how to renovate a Detroit house without being a jackass. He remarks that only new arrivals wear the popular DETROIT -vs- EVERYBODY T-shirts, which carried a personal sting because I grew up in Detroit, in both the city and the suburbs, and I’m wearing one of the T-shirts as I write these words. (It was a gift from a nephew who recently visited the city — honest!) Frankly, I like the us-against-the-world sentiment. To each his own, I say.
At the heart of this book is Foley’s position as a native Detroiter — that is, as someone who is stubbornly proud of his troubled hometown, and weary of the clichés and half-baked myths that continue to cling to the place like the smoke gushing from the stacks at Ford’s River Rouge factory. As he wrote in last year’s superb A Detroit Anthology, edited by Anna Clark, Foley is tired of Detroit being “the butt of jokes and the target of pity.” So his noble mission in this new book is to wipe away the jokes and the pity, the clichés and myths, so people can start to see Detroit for what it truly is. The picture Foley paints isn’t always pretty, but it’s always real. All readers — native Detroiters and new arrivals, citizens of America and residents of outer Mongolia — should thank him for telling it like it is. Isn’t that what all books are supposed to do?
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