Book Review: "Detroit: An American Autopsy"

John Marks
by John Marks
book review detroit an american autopsy

(When I put this into the TTAC “back-end”, I forgot to change the author. This article is the work of John Marks, not Jack Baruth — JB)

Former Detroit News city-beat reporter Charlie LeDuff’s memoir Detroit: An American Autopsy (2013; newly out in paperback) fairly pulsates with not-quite-controlled rage, but at least he came by it honestly. A working-class native of Detroit who parlayed his talents for finding stories and for telling stories into a position at the New York Times, LeDuff quit what once had been his dream job in 2007.

After ten years (a span of time that included 9/11), LeDuff had had enough of the Times’ “intellectual mud wrestling and… oblique putdowns.” The straw that broke his back was an editor’s telling him that he spent too much time writing about “losers.” (One gets the idea that if that editor wasn’t a Brown graduate named Chauncey who was wearing a Brooks Brothers oxford-cloth shirt, he might as well have been.)

After a brief unsatisfying stint in Los Angeles, LeDuff and his wife and infant daughter returned to Detroit in 2008, so he could “chronicle the decline of the Great American Industrial City.” His timing was impeccable, to say the least.

Circling back to Detroit was instinct, like a salmon needing to swim upstream because he is genetically encoded to do so. Detroit might be the epicenter, a funhouse mirror and future projection of America. An incredibly depressed city in its death swoon.

But it could also be a Candy Land from a reporter’s perspective. Decay. Mile after mile of rotting buildings, murder, leftover people. One fucking depressing, dysfunctional big glowing ball of color. One unbelievable story after another.

Detroit is a city where homicide cops have to take the bus to crime scenes because there is no money to fix the squad cars, where firehouses have to sell their brass poles to raise money, where schoolchildren are told to bring their own toilet paper to school because politicians and public employees are feathering their own nests, and where automaker executives take private jets to Washington to ask Congress for $25 billion.

But, as the book unfolds, it becomes apparent that every bit as important to LeDuff as having a ringside seat at the implosion of his hometown was unfinished business in his family’s past and in his own past. LeDuff’s extended family includes his deceased streetwalker sister (who jumped out of a stranger’s speeding van and encountered a large tree at high speed) and his niece (the streetwalker’s daughter), who died young from a heroin overdose. He also has various brothers, one of whom is a repentant former fast-talking junk-mortgage salesman. The former mortgage pusher has just been evicted from the house he bought using the kind of surreal mortgage he had been in the business of selling. When we meet him, he and his wife are sorting and cleaning screws in a machine shop, and getting paid $8 an hour.

LeDuff’s writing alternates between the gritty particularity of a dispatch from a war zone, bouts of world-weary detached and nearly hopeless reflection, and moments of rage. There is none of Damon Runyon’s louche chic and none of Jimmy Breslin’s comical bad-guy local color in this book.

LeDuff’s subjects, including himself, often seem stunned, unable to figure out how they got to the terrible place they find themselves in. (It isn’t giving away much to tell that by the middle of the book, LeDuff has been arrested for domestic assault, spending a night in jail as a result.)

Settling in after his first day of work—the day Detroit’s young Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick was indicted for what normal people would call stealing public money—LeDuff gets his testicles groped by the wife of a member of the US House of Representatives. He also visits a dead body frozen in the ice in the flooded basement of an abandoned warehouse, spends a lot of time in homeless shelters and the coroner’s office, and is threatened by several people who are not very nice. The book includes a portfolio of photographs by Danny Wilcox Frazier. My favorite is of a nearly naked streetwalker and a trashed motorboat inside the former Packard factory.

Comparisons to Hunter Thompson have been made and are rather obvious. I think they are slightly off the mark, because Thompson was reinventing himself as a fictional character while visiting places in which he didn’t live. LeDuff just tells the truth as he perceives it, because he came from and lives in the city about which he’s writing.

LeDuff recounts the histories of Detroit, of his own family, and of the auto business with a mixture of amusement, horror, and indignation. This is not a non-fiction book about the car business, and it is not a comprehensive analysis of what ails Detroit. This is a book written by a guy who spent five years trying to figure out his own life while doing a job that often involves prying into other peoples’ deepest miseries. What keeps LeDuff from being a mere parasite is that he can still get outraged over outrages. Detroit: An American Autopsy is full of outrages and the Big Three are among them.

Record producer John Marks is a columnist for Stereophile magazine.

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  • Ronnie Schreiber Ronnie Schreiber on Mar 18, 2014

    Matt Labash of the Weekly Standard spent some time in Detroit with Charlie LeDuff and produced what I think is one of the best pieces of writing on the city in recent memory:

    • See 2 previous
    • Seth1065 Seth1065 on Mar 18, 2014

      @SayMyName Well what do you do with the people who live there , and the buildings and the streets, I doubt you can just make it disappear, unless the army needs a really big base in mi ?

  • Dave M. Dave M. on Mar 19, 2014

    This has been a fascinating strand to read. Thanks to all contributors. Lots of further reading planned. To bball etal best wishes!

  • Max So GM will be making TESLAS in the future. YEA They really shouldn’t be taking cues from Elon musk. Tesla is just about to be over.
  • Malcolm It's not that commenters attack Tesla, musk has brought it on the company. The delivery of the first semi was half loaded in 70 degree weather hauling potato chips for frito lay. No company underutilizes their loads like this. Musk shouted at the world "look at us". Freightliners e-cascads has been delivering loads for 6-8 months before Tesla delivered one semi. What commenters are asking "What's the actual usable range when in say Leadville when its blowing snow and -20F outside with a full trailer?
  • Funky D I despise Google for a whole host of reasons. So why on earth would I willing spend a large amount of $ on a car that will force Google spyware on me.The only connectivity to the world I will put up with is through my phone, which at least gives me the option of turning it off or disconnecting it from the car should I choose to.No CarPlay, no sale.
  • William I think it's important to understand the factors that made GM as big as it once was and would like to be today. Let's roll back to 1965, or even before that. GM was the biggest of the Big Three. It's main competition was Ford and Chrysler, as well as it's own 5 brands competing with themselves. The import competition was all but non existent. Volkswagen was the most popular imported cars at the time. So GM had its successful 5 brands, and very little competition compared to today's market. GM was big, huge in fact. It was diversified into many other lines of business, from trains to information data processing (EDS). Again GM was huge. But being huge didn't make it better. There are many examples of GM not building the best cars they could, it's no surprise that they were building cars to maximize their profits, not to be the best built cars on the road, the closest brand to achieve that status was Cadillac. Anyone who owned a Cadillac knew it could have been a much higher level of quality than it was. It had a higher level of engineering and design features compared to it's competition. But as my Godfather used to say "how good is good?" Being as good as your competitors, isn't being as good as you could be. So, today GM does not hold 50% of the automotive market as it once did, and because of a multitude of reasons it never will again. No matter how much it improves it's quality, market value and dealer network, based on competition alone it can't have a 50% market share again. It has only 3 of its original 5 brands, and there are too many strong competitors taking pieces of the market share. So that says it's playing in a different game, therfore there's a whole new normal to use as a baseline than before. GM has to continue downsizing to fit into today's market. It can still be big, but in a different game and scale. The new normal will never be the same scale it once was as compared to the now "worlds" automotive industry. Just like how the US railroad industry had to reinvent its self to meet the changing transportation industry, and IBM has had to reinvent its self to play in the ever changing Information Technology industry it finds it's self in. IBM was once the industry leader, now it has to scale it's self down to remain in the industry it created. GM is in the same place that the railroads, IBM and other big companies like AT&T and Standard Oil have found themselves in. It seems like being the industry leader is always followed by having to reinvent it's self to just remain viable. It's part of the business cycle. GM, it's time you accept your fate, not dead, but not huge either.
  • Tassos The Euro spec Taurus is the US spec Ford FUSION.Very few buyers care to see it here. FOrd has stopped making the Fusion long agoWake us when you have some interesting news to report.