Once in a Great City: A Detroit Story

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A Year in Reading: Bill Morris

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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?

More from A Year in Reading 2015

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Love in the Ruins: On Matt Bell’s ‘Scrapper’

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Detroit may not be cranking out the fire-breathing cars or the finger-popping Motown hits the way it used to, but the Motor City has been inspiring some splendid writing in recent years. The latest addition to this long and growing shelf is Matt Bell’s stirring second novel, Scrapper, a book that gets its hands dirty wrestling with the wreckage — both material and human — of a once-mighty city.

Kelly is the novel’s titular scrapper, a loner who cruises the city’s abandoned heart, known as the zone, looking for metal he can salvage and sell. It’s lonely, dangerous, back-breaking, and marginally criminal work, but Kelly does it without complaint. He isn’t living any sort of real life, just “wallowing in the aftermath of terrible error.” Even so, he proves to be a savvy guide to the city’s underground economy, the contours of its decline. He knows, for instance, that the decline began long ago, as in, “Nearly two million citizens in 1950 but then fewer every year.”

He knows about emptiness: “The farther he moved toward the center of the zone the more the neighborhoods sagged, all the wood falling off of brick, most every house uninhabited, the stores a couple thousand square feet of blank shelves, windows barred against the stealing of the nothing there.”

He knows about the relative value of scrap: “A hundred pounds of copper pipe paid more than double a truckload of steel.” And he understands the gradations of the city’s scrap yards, from legitimate to flagrantly illegal: “The unofficial yards kept unofficial hours. You could show up in the middle of the day and find the place deserted, show up at midnight and find three guys playing cards, getting high, cutting scrap. They paid a fraction of the price, the price of no questions asked.”

Such details are important because they ground the novel in a very real and very sinister world. Reading Scrapper, you don’t so much enter a conventional fictional world as you succumb to a fugue state, or a fever dream. Bell is a brave writer, willing to work without a safety net on a high wire of his own making. He stumbles from time to time, but that doesn’t diminish this novel’s admirable ambition.

The story gains steam when Kelly meets a girl at a bar and they begin a relationship. An emergency dispatcher, she knows cars and she loves the local hockey team, the Red Wings, which is to say she’s a true Detroit girl. In time Kelly learns that she’s suffering from an unnamed progressive disease that has the markings of multiple sclerosis, which will provide a test for his love and his mettle.

The story finally soars when Kelly makes a horrifying discovery: a naked 12-year-old boy chained to a bed in the sound-proofed basement of an abandoned house. He frees the boy, takes him to the hospital, and watches his own simple life mushroom with complications, including the suspicion that he was involved in the boy’s abduction, and his mission to seek vengeance against the abductor. These complications lead to a nearly schizophrenic split in Kelly’s personality, between the rapacious scrapper and the high-minded “salvor.”

There are stumbles, as I say. Sections narrated in the second person by the kidnapper feel contrived. A sudden shift to first-person narration by Kelly is jarring. Two sections — one set in Cuba, the other in the Ukraine — add nothing to the story. In the former, a terrorism suspect talks like a Don DeLillo character on a bad Cosmopolis day: “In your country, if I had shot a man in my youth, could my crime be almost an accident, an inevitability, an unavoidable outcome of a system?…A crime, yes, but the crime of having been younger, less educated, less patient. There would be those who would protest my harsh treatment.” No one talks like that, and I have no idea why this man is in the novel.

But such missteps are minor compared to this novel’s larger virtues. Kelly was a state champ wrestler in high school, under the tutelage of a demanding, abusive father, and now he takes up boxing. This leads to a bravura boxing match, during which Kelly absorbs a vicious beating and Matt Bell proves he can write like a dream, can make boxing a metaphor for a way to live life:

How to protect yourself from the blow you can’t see coming. This was what the other boxers talked about…(b)ecause it was the blow you couldn’t see coming that knocked you out. If you stared into every punch you could never be put down. The illusion of control. Self-determination in battle. Kelly didn’t believe in anything else he’d once believed in but he thought he might believe in this.

For such insights, Bell acknowledges his debt to On Boxing by Joyce Carol Oates.

Maybe the finest thing about Scrapper is the way in takes us into a deep-pore underworld that’s rarely explored in even the best books about Detroit. Paul Clemens has written beautiful and sad stories about the decline of blue-collar Detroit, but Scrapper is something new, a book by a writer willing to explore worlds so dark you need a miner’s helmet to navigate your way.

The novel’s publication coincides with the appearance of a wonderful new non-fiction book by David Maraniss, a Detroit native, prolific author, and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. His Once In a Great City: A Detroit Story offers a vivid snapshot of the moment when Detroit reached its peak, from late 1962 to early 1964. Meanwhile, Dominique Morisseau continues to write wrenching plays set in Detroit’s glorious and turbulent past. There have recently been insightful books on Detroit by Anna Clark, Mark Binelli, Charlie LeDuff, Scott Martelle, John Gallagher, and others. And Angela Flournoy’s terrific debut novel, The Turner House, the story of a sprawling Detroit family’s crumbling home place, has just been long-listed for the National Book Award.

With Scrapper, Matt Bell has joined some fast — and fast-growing — company.

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