While LeDuff can write about politicians and policies, he’s more concerned with the people who don’t normally attract journalistic attention. That’s been his career: covering the oddballs, the victims, the helpless, and the hopeless, often with his trademark outrage and frustration. Several chapters are devoted to Aiyana Mo’nay Stanley-Jones, the seven-year-old girl killed by a police bullet during a midnight raid in search of a murder suspect. A camera crew from the A&E cable show The First 48 filmed the raid, and LeDuff speculates that the need to impress the cameras led to overly aggressive police action—a story he wrote for the November/December 2010 edition of Mother Jones that’s repackaged in the book.
Detroit gets intensely personal at times. LeDuff discusses in detail his sister Nicole’s life as a prostitute, and her death after leaping out of a speeding van and into a tree. A younger brother, Billy, gets a chapter about his fall from being a home mortgage loan officer making a good salary for Detroit’s Quicken Loans to an $8.50-an-hour floor worker in a gritty screw factory. Billy wrote his own mortgage, only to lose his house when the flimsy market he helped create collapsed. Now, he’s scraping by to support his family.
LeDuff visits his brother in the screw factory and offers a long lament about the worst of the home loan practices and the new reality for suburbanites forced into low-wage jobs with few or no benefits:
There was no health care offered here. What constituted a dental plan came from a toolbox. That is, my brother attempted to take out an abscessed molar with a pair of pliers. The molar snapped below the gum line.
The undertone is not quite rage, and not quite ennui, but something in between, a mixture of the anger, frustration, and exhaustion that Detroit residents feel every day. The personal anecdotes work much better than any statistics-driven account to illustrate how easy it is to become a “loser” in modern Detroit. The data are brought to life as real people, and LeDuff writes in a way that makes you want to keep reading.
If LeDuff is guilty of anything, it’s an almost childlike innocence in his admiration for the workingman, particularly Detroit’s firefighters and cops. They get a classic Hollywood treatment as hard-bitten, salty characters that could have stepped out of a Raymond Chandler potboiler. That’s not to say LeDuff is inaccurate in his portrayals. He’s not. The men and women who patrol Detroit’s streets and operate its fire trucks and ems rigs are a colorful breed. Their speech is peppered with profanity and laced with frustration over the endless murders and fires, the systemic corruption, and the crumbling equipment that the city is too poor or inept to replace.
He spends quite a bit of time with the men of Engine Company 23 and their shopworn East Side firehouse. Naturally, in this dystopia, the station’s alarm bell is broken. The firefighters gin up a solution worthy of Rube Goldberg, LeDuff writes: “When a call comes to the station, a fax paper rolls out of the printer containing the directions to the fire. So someone had it rigged where the fax paper pushed over a door hinge with a screw mounted on it. The screw touched an electrified metal plate that was wired to the alarm, which completed an electrical circuit. The bell rang. Then the box bleated.”
Also, the city sold the firehouse’s brass poles for cash, he notes.
LeDuff is as much a character as anyone in his copy. Near the book’s end, he recounts how he quit The Detroit News, over what he says were changes made to a story about a “lazy judge” who freed a career criminal. The guy later killed a cop. The situation triggers an indictment of the newspaper business:
I called my buddy the janitor and had him bring a trash can on wheels up to the newsroom. When he did, I swept the entire contents of my desktop into the garbage can and walked out.” He writes that “American newspapers were yellow and stale before they came off the press. Dog-beaten by a dwindling readership, financial losses and partisan attacks, editors had stripped them of their personality in an attempt to offend no one. And so there was no more reason to read them. Safety before Truth. Grammar over Guts. Winners before Losers.