In recent years, a journalistic cottage industry has emerged around the collapse of once-vibrant Detroit, the implosion of the domestic automotive industry, and the stark racial divide that looms over everything in the city. National news outlets are continually fascinated by the city and its renaissance efforts. Documentary filmmakers and urban explorers find Detroit’s crumbling infrastructure and architecture irresistible—giving rise to the term “ruin porn.” And a seemingly endless succession of books promise to analyze and examine the city and its problems.
But few of the new Detroit books are likely to chronicle the author’s own arrest and brief jailing, a robbery attempt that forced him to pull a gun and piss himself out of fear, domestic problems with his wife, his beloved streetwalker sister’s death (followed by her daughter’s fatal drug overdose), and an addled female city councilwoman squeezing his testicles in a bar, all interspersed with tales of corrupt politicians, arson, murder, and the front-line public safety workers and everyday citizens who won’t or can’t leave the city.
If I hadn’t met Pulitzer-winning reporter Charlie LeDuff, it would be easy to dismiss some of Detroit: An American Autopsy as Bukowskian exaggeration or outright fantasy. But I do know LeDuff, I know Detroit, and I know the people and incidents that populate his new book. He’s blunt and honest in Detroit, which is a memoir of a native son come home to a place that was falling apart, but also a civic history, a war story, a lament, and a multi-count indictment of the political, economic, and social systems that allowed Detroit to fail its people—and itself.
The book is better if the reader is at least a little familiar with LeDuff, a former New York Times staff writer who left to freelance before joining his hometown Detroit News in 2008. (The content is largely reworked from his News output.) He’s gonzo. He says what he thinks, between drags on a cigarette. He hits the streets in his uniform: A work shirt with rolled-up sleeves, a vest and necktie, blue jeans, and cowboy boots painted in American flag livery. In covering Detroit media for six years, I can tell you no one has been as remotely polarizing within the local journalism ranks as Charlie LeDuff.
(Disclosure: LeDuff and I have crossed paths occasionally on stories around town, and we once spent a vodka-infused night with Weekly Standard writer Matt Labash at a sidewalk bar on legendary Woodward Avenue.)
One reason why LeDuff alienates some journalists is that he gets involved with his stories, like a pissed-off George Plimpton reporting from hell. From the opening pages, it’s clear Detroit will be no different. It opens with a story about LeDuff being robbed at a downtown gas station. He ends up pulling a gun: “I bent into the car, reaching for the glove box latch. There was a 9mm inside. Not mine. It belonged to a reporter who had forgotten to store it in his desk on his way to a press conference. He had asked me in the parking lot to hold on to it and I laughed about a journalist carrying a concealed weapon. Correspondents don’t do that even in war zones, I told him.”
“Well, how many of those war reporters do you know who’ve been to Detroit?” the unnamed journalist retorts.
The opening anecdote is a thematic preview of the book to come: highly personal, dramatic, and emotionally charged. Rather than offering a linear narrative tracing the decline of American’s mightiest industrial city, Detroit presents several ongoing storylines at once, ranging from LeDuff’s personal anecdotes to the shocking fall of Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, who was brought down by a blend of arrogance and greed that exploded when a barrage of gratuitous sexual text messages to his girlfriend/chief of staff were made public. He lied about it, and ended up in jail.
Although Wall Street bankers, home mortgage lenders, and automotive industry executives get their share of angry rhetoric, Kilpatrick is the book’s chief villain and the object of LeDuff’s most toxic venom; he refers to Kilpatrick in one chapter as a “pussy” and a “big bitch.” Detroit’s problems are systemic and have been metastasizing for generations, but Kilpatrick’s explosive and very public fall from grace during the timeframe of Detroit is the most convenient (and obvious) target for LeDuff’s generalized rage toward politicians and authority figures.