"[Detroit] also could be a Candy Land from a reporterâ€™s perspective. Decay. Mile after mile of rotten buildings, murder, leftover people. One fucking depressing, dysfunctional big glowing ball of color. One unbelievable story after another," Charlie LeDuff, "Detroit: An American Autopsy"
Charlie LeDuffÂ is a reporterâ€™s reporter. An old-fashioned, bare-knuckle, shoe-leather scribe with a notebook in one hand and a simmering rage at societal breakdowns in the other. Unlike so many of his â€śesteemedâ€ť peers, LeDuffÂ doesn'tÂ pontificate from on high, heâ€™s out on the streets crafting stories from the ground up. Heâ€™s a shot-and-a-beer type, telling the tales of cops, firemen, working stiffs, drug dealers, broke-ass single mothers, and the moneyed class that ignores them on the way toÂ Coach Insignia.
In his new memoir "Detroit: An American Autopsy," LeDuff returns home with his wife and young daughter to try and figure out why his hometown is dead. LeDuffÂ hasn'tÂ come back to be a civic booster, heâ€™s back to exhume its rotting corpse. After years in the wilderness of The New York Times, LeDuff takes a job at the Detroit News and immerses himself in â€śAmericaâ€™s Most Miserable City.â€ť
In LeDuffâ€™s world, Motown equals death. In Detroit, he follows a trail of bodies: A forgotten corpse encased in ice, a dedicated fireman killed in an insurance scam, an unfortunate soul caught up in a bloody drug war, an innocent young victim of overaggressive policing, and his own beloved family members. The struggles of the LeDuff clan make up the strongest sections of the book, as the author fights to come to grips with the death of his troubled sister (years ago, she got into a strangerâ€™s van and dived out at 80 mph, right into a tree) and her wayward daughter, who overdoses on heroin not longer after he returns. There is a heartbreaking moment when LeDuffâ€™s long-suffering mother finally finds a resting spot for her daughterâ€™s ashes, in the coffin alongside her granddaughter.
Itâ€™s been a hard road for the family, the living members of which deal with constant turmoil. One brother barely works, another tries to hold onto a house thatâ€™s worth a pittance of what he paid for it.Â LeDuff seethes with anger on the pages, first in the Detroit News, and now in his memoir.Â His view of the city is of a bleak, unforgiving place where getting through the night counts as a major accomplishment. There is no whitewashing reality in LeDuffâ€™s world. By the second paragraph he compares Detroit to â€śDodge City---semilawless and crazy,â€ť and by the end of the first chapter he pulls a 9mm out of the glove compartment, aiming the barrel in a would-be muggerâ€™s face.
"Detroit" covers the two years LeDuff spends at the News.Â Raised in a working-class suburb, LeDuff is neither nostalgic nor sentimental. HeÂ isn'tÂ one to extol the virtues of the old General Motors cradle-to-grave work life. He says bluntly, â€śour generation failed to learn the nobility of work,â€ť but also that â€śthe union made the work too hard to get.â€ť To add context to his personal demons, LeDuff peppers in depressing notes about Detroit. Itâ€™s the only city to have been occupied by the United States army three times; itâ€™s the only city that has surpassed one million people only to contract below that threshold; the auto industry has been reeling for longer than people know (by 1958, 20% of the city workforce was unemployed so the city set up its own welfare system); there are no chain grocery stores in town, and worst of all, more than five children are murdered every month.
As grim as "Detroit" can be, LeDuff has a great eye for black comedy, and rueful laughs come out of common occurrences like folks gathering together to watch abandoned homes burn because itâ€™s cheaper than a movie. Arson as entertainment and Devilâ€™s Night as family barbecue: apparently this is the Detroit way. Unfortunately, for every twisted chuckle LeDuff delivers, thereâ€™s a gruesome rejoinder like the man who blows himself up tapping into a gas line in a simple attempt to provide his family some warmth.