Motor City meltdown

Reporter Charlie LeDuff provides autopsy of Detroit

Detroit has already become a cultural punchline a sad tale of American hubris and ruin. There are many grim facts and figures about the former car capital and all of them are awful: rampant unemployment enormous swaths of the cityscape abandoned and given over to ruin and an insanely high crime rate. But what really freaks everyone out is wondering what city is next.

As reporter Charlie LeDuff writes in his new book Detroit: An American Autopsy “At the end of the day the Detroiter may be the most important American there is because no one knows better than he that we’re all standing at the edge of the shaft.”

After Detroit declared bankruptcy in July 2013 many books and documentaries sprung up depicting the city in its seemingly final death throes. Chain-smoking rough-and-ready reporter Charlie LeDuff opens his “autopsy” by describing how he ended up returning to the city that he once called home. “It is important to note that growing up in Detroit and its suburbs I can honestly say it was never that good in the first place” he writes. After years spent writing for the New York Times he decides he has to see the action for himself. He accepts a job at the floundering Detroit News and moves with his wife and daughter to a home on the outskirts of the city.

It doesn’t take long for him to become embroiled in the city beat. Fires are rampant (not only on the city’s infamous Devil’s Night) and firefighters have no money for proper equipment and new uniforms. A skeletal police service struggles to answer calls and address an endless backlog of unsolved murders. Former mayor Kwame Kilpatrick disgraces himself with a lewd public affair and rampant embezzling landing himself in prison.

There’s no end to the grief and it begins to poison LeDuff’s mind. Most of his extended family and siblings have fallen into the city’s clutches with the resultant poverty drugs and death. His tale is more travelogue by way of memoir an exposé of the city’s demons and his own. But it’s not all doom and gloom. As he shows many Detroiters are still finding a way to get by and enjoy their city and he uses his journalistic swagger and intensity to help a few people out along the way.

The book’s acclaim is well deserved. It’s sad and unbelievably crazy in places but LeDuff isn’t slumming around indulging in cultural schadenfreude. The man seems to genuinely care even as the city eats away at his heart.

LeDuff has the mouth of a sailor and the talent of a mega ballsy wildly skilled poet. His pen drips with wicked poison but it’s a testament to his reporter’s gift for snappy prose that it doesn’t come off like a grubby sob story. The man is old school a lone star reporter in a city that needs one. Let’s hope there’s a sequel.

DETROIT: AN AMERICAN AUTOPSY by Charlie LeDuff The Penguin Press (304 pp.).