“Detroit – An American Autopsy” by Charlie LeDuff

I went to college at Michigan State, so for four years I lived in East Lansing, one hour’s drive from Detroit. I never saw the city, except for the airport. Once I spent a night in Detroit at a friend’s house, so I could catch an early flight out. 

Charlie LeDuff, a Detroit native, lived and worked as a reporter in several cities, then brought his wife and daughter home to Detroit, to be near relatives. His account of the life of the city is just gruesome. Detroit is depopulated, desperately poor, politically corrupt and dangerous. 

LeDuff tells the stories of many “little” people whose lives are chaotic, wrecked by poverty, drugs and violence. The only officials who earn his respect are the firemen, who fight a grim battle against fires that are usually set intentionally. Their firehouses are caving in around them and their equipment is old and inadequate.

LeDuff builds his narrative around a fireman who dies when a house collapses on him. The crime of arson is upgraded to murder when a life is lost. Ultimately, the man who set the fire is sentenced to 17 years imprisonment, and the person who PAID him ($20) to set the fire is sentenced to 42 years. This outcome proves that, against the odds, justice does (on occasion) prevail in the struggling Detroit court system.

Of course, this book reminded me of Cities are Good for You by Leo Hollis (see August 9 & 26). Hollis loves cities, but recognizes their problems, and he does in fact discuss Detroit, with 8 references in his index. I started browsing, and a light went on in my head. He mentions the company Quicken Loans, a major purveyor of the sub prime mortgages that contributed so much to the housing market collapse and the foreclosure epidemic.

Before the recession, LeDuff’s bother Billy worked for Quicken. He describes his former job as “borderline criminal”. “I sold bullshit mortgages…negative amortization… A lot of people got fucked. I got fucked.” His current job, in a parts factory, pays $8.50 per (no benefits) for work in dirty, dangerous conditions. He says it’s his penance for the harm he did as a Quicken employee.

But Hollis sees Quicken Loans as a potential “savior” for bringing it’s corporate headquarters to downtown Detroit in 2011. I don’t know who is right about Quicken.

A major theme running through American Autopsy is race. LeDuff examines it demographically, politically and from the viewpoint of his own family. Whoever called race “America’s unfinished business” could have been speaking of Detroit. 

LeDuff is a master practitioner of the new(ish) genre of creative non-fiction. He hooked me in a few pages and I read his book in two days. Its attraction is in the details. I felt like I had watched a particularly good documentary film.



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