By on March 18, 2014


(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.

Get the latest TTAC e-Newsletter!

34 Comments on “Book Review: “Detroit: An American Autopsy”...”

  • avatar

    It is a great book. Charlie LeDuff can be a polarizing character, but he brings a sincere human element to anything he does. I enjoy his longer TV segments where he canoes the Rouge River, golfs from 8 Mile to Belle Isle, or follows around the Wayne County Executive.

    The book can be depressing though. Because I see the decay and blight of Detroit everyday, it may hit closer to home. There are parts of the city that have more deer and pheasant than people. Unfortunely, the post apocalyptic back drop of Detroit isn’t unique in the state of Michigan. I am often in Saginaw and Flint for work, and they are worse. Detroit has both beat when it comes to scale though. Its 142 square miles of what could have been.

    All that being said, I currently have the most positive outlook for Detroit my entire life. Little sucesses are everywhere. Hopefully they add up to something big.

    • 0 avatar

      Its said that Flint is simply a microcosm of Detroit and Saginaw one of Flint and their is a certain truth to that from an economic perspective. The I75 corridor that travels up through Detroit,Pontiac,Flint and Saginaw was decimated by the unraveling of the auto industry from about 1980 on. Detroit seems almost beyond repair. The scale of decay is so epic that it boggles the mind. But their is also opportunity and potential,along with hopeful signs of resurgence. Just ask Warren Buffett.
      For those that do not visit or travel to Michigan, I ask you to keep in mind that Michigan is a vastly different (read better) place outside of the southeast lower peninsula area.
      This state has tremendous natural assets and one or two lakes to offer one seeking solace.Just do your best to avoid the potholes on your way there.

    • 0 avatar

      Thanks for the heads-up on this book. For my point of view I can offer the following:

      After WW-2, Detroit went nuts with industrial prosperity, because the rest of the global industrial world was smashed to bits. Somehow Detroit forgot THAT was the reason, and thought it would always be that way. Ummm, noooo.

      “Detroit,” as in the Detroit area, or SE Michigan, or Michigan itself, is much more than simply Detroit-city. And if you don’t live in Detroit city, that’s the way the 3.4M of the rest of us in SE think about it.

      The SE Michigan area has LOTS of scenic lakes, natural countryside, and great little coves of small city downtowns. (And amazingly, sometimes you will find all three of these features in one small location.) We have the Great Lakes all around us, and on the west side of the state, we have towns and beaches for hundreds of miles that BEAT Florida and California. There is also the East side Great Lakes with the sunrise view, and the Detroit River, so boating is huge. There are lots, LOTS, of high-dollar real estate and lots of locales which are the polar opposite of Detroit city. It is an area where you think: Where does all this money come from? Traffic here moves at 70-85MPH. Take that LA. Oakland county has a very high credit rating, and a forward-looking three year budget.

      And then there’s the rest of the state. Farms and countryside. It’s pretty normal. Above average, really.

      As for Detroit city, I don’t watch the local news anymore, I don’t want to hear about it. The residents there simply deserve what they elected, and the effort they put into it all. It is a microcosm of what can go wrong with the rest of the U.S. I drive down there once every few years, to catch glimpses of auto nostalgia; I never felt unsafe, but I have avoided some of those ‘bad streets.’ Money can be made here, if you’re smart.

      Why did it all fall apart? My take is because the leaders, in government and industry, were too self-centered. That’s not what a “leader” is.

  • avatar

    Wow! Great review. Just Kindled the book. Can’t wait to read.

  • avatar

    I live in a sleepy suburb of Detroit so I am hit with a lot of these issues on local news, of course I do not have the in depth personal experience that LaDuff has. He (LaDuff) is a television personality on a local news station and I must say he comes off as a total d’bag. The kind of guy that revels in consipracy, corruption and pain. I think a lot of that is the role of spoiler he is asked to play by the television station, but who knows.

    He did have a segment on CNN’s Anthony Bourdain “Parts Unknown” where they chronicled the decline of Detroit and spent a great deal of time on comeback stories around Detroit. It was both depressing and a bit too optimistic about Detroits future prospects, but I think the segment showed LaDuff in a more genuine way. He is concerned, disgusted and hopeful at the same time when speaking of Detroit……but that is the job he has made for himself so who knows how much is sincere vs just another job. Still, I am intrigued enough to be interested in the book.

    • 0 avatar

      “The kind of guy that revels in consipracy, corruption and pain.”

      Those are all things that have been going on in the City of Detroit and Wayne County for decades. Even if he comes off as a d’bag, he gets results. We shouldn’t need someone like Charlie to get sewage cleaned out of firehouse basements, suggest that building a jail next to Ford Field isn’t a great plan when the state will sell the county a jail for $1, or demand ambulances not be in a state of disrepair ALL THE TIME. But in Detroit, I guess we do.

  • avatar

    “(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.)”

    Poppycock. Everyone knows that New York journalism culture is overrun by Yalies.

    • 0 avatar
      John Marks

      You are forgetting the New York media affirmative-action quota system favoring latter-day graduates of the first Baptist theological seminary in the New World, that being Rhode Island College (Warren, RI), founded 1764.

      The naming rights later sold for $5000. A smart buy, all things considered.

      All the best,

      John Marks

  • avatar

    Detroit is a case that should be studied by the rest of society so the same mistakes aren’t made on a much grander scale. Sounds like a good book.

    • 0 avatar

      We have already emulated Detroit’s leadership nationally. It just takes a bit of time for people to start copulating with dogs for weed.

      • 0 avatar

        Detroit couldn’t generate enough revenue from taxation because anyone that had money left. It takes longer for problems to show up when the power of taxation has a wider base and people with money. Other cities and states will have these problems as well.

  • avatar

    Those interested in the decline of Detroit and this book might also be interested in Economics Professor Mike Smitka’s brief recollections of his own time working at Mack Stamping, stamping out roofs for Chrysler station wagons during college. He also includes his observation as an economist raised in Detroit with deep roots in the auto industry.

    • 0 avatar

      This is a really good read, thanks for sharing.

    • 0 avatar

      I didn’t see where he mentioned the UAW’s ability through its Wagner Act monopoly power to secure wage/benefits increases beyond increases in labor productivity.

      The BIg Three could not join to resist UAW demands, they could only pay up and decontent product. Ultimately they did move plants to places like Mexico but that in effect subsidized domestic UAW wages. Facing the power of the UAW, is it any wonder the companies saw auto production as a poor investment.

      It’s hilarious to blame Reagan, i.e., “voluntary import restrictions” and “strong dollar” for the fruits of Democrats and labor unions.

    • 0 avatar

      Wow. That was interesting; thanks for posting the link.

  • avatar

    This one looks interesting as well, I have not read it yet:
    Teardown by Gordon Young

  • avatar

    Sounds like a book worth reading.

    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the root cause of Detroit’s implosion was a huge, over-built city dependent on one industry, and when it left, it was Lights Out. The same is true for the entire state of Michigan. Other industrial cities have suffered from industrial flight, but not the way Detroit has, mainly because few cities are as physically large as Detroit is, and most have fairly diversified industrial bases. St. Louis (my hometown), for example, had a huge automotive industry that is largely gone, and while it’s a mess, it’s a LOT better off than Detroit is, mainly because there are other industries there (aerospace and the Budweiser brewery, mainly – God help them if Boeing leaves).

    There are other fundamental issues – political corruption, mainly – but Detroit is a unique case. I can’t think of another city that got so big based on one industry. The only other city I can think of that’s so dependent on one economic activity is New York, but the difference is that the same post-industrial economic recalibration that killed Detroit (the shift from heavy industry to finance) benefits New York, and that’s not going to change anytime soon. If anything, I see financial centers becoming even more important as time goes on.

    Detroit is going to have to become fundamentally smaller, and the corruption must be handled. Eventually, I foresee a mild comeback – the industrial infrastructure and large pool of labor has to be attractive to mid-size manufacturing. But the city’s glory days are gone.

    • 0 avatar

      I see little hope that Detroit will ever rebound into anything worth preserving. It is simply too far gone, and its citizens have few others to blame but themselves for allowing it to happen.

      As harsh as it sounds, ever ounce of pragmatism within me says to let it die, so that resources and capital may be focused towards more worthwhile efforts.

      • 0 avatar

        It did die. Detroit in a few years will be greatly different than the Detroit that went into bankruptcy. It should be looked at as a cautionary tale. The City of Chicago and the State of California may be crippled by their debt and pension liabilities as well. California has $330 billion or more in liabilities. Chicago’s number is at $33 billion. Detroit ran out of people with money to tax. Places like Chicago and California don’t have that problem right now. Can they keep up with their rising debt though?

        • 0 avatar

          Detroit hasn’t died, at least not in the manner it should be allowed to.

          It is my opinion that every dollar spent propping up the societal stragglers and hangers-on remaining in Detroit today is being wasted.

          • 0 avatar

            It isn’t a perfect process, but it is what we have. The city went bankrupt, and everyone has to take haircuts (some more than others). The city’s future is being shaped by an Emergency Manager, Republican Governor, and a judge.

            The societal stragglers and hangers-on will die off. It isn’t something that happens instantly. As much as I’d like to break the city up into parts and have it anexed by other cities, I know that’s impossible. Grosse Pointe would rather build a wall than take a piece of property on the other side of Cadieux that has someone living in it. Now, if you move people and give Grosse Pointe or Dearborn land, they may take it.

            I don’t disagree with you in principle, but it is still the largest city in MI, with over 4 million people living in the general area. Its going to get $ for things we don’t like regardless.

          • 0 avatar
            Sweyn Tyryrsonn

            At various times almost everyone in my family has lived, studied, and worked in the city. Most of my daily commute is through it. The problem is that “propping up Detroit” and “propping up the societal stragglers and hangers-on remaining in Detroit” are no longer the same. Similar, but not the same, and what we might loose now….

            There are not really any stragglers; save for a few 80 widow(er)s who won’t leave their house, most people in the city can’t get out. Even in this era of depressed property values, most of the remaining ‘old’ Detroit population are residue. They don’t help the city, which doesn’t help them, but they are not nearly the impediment to a city as the people who COULD get out, who brought their societal ills with them when they moved to Harper Woods and now seek to leave another husk; not that I’m blaming them alone for Detroit, or nearly as much as others. When you’re so beaten and so trapped, that even Detroit is stretching your budget, you don’t have the vim, the energy, or the will to cause problems.

            What’s in Detroit, from my perspective?

            Green Dot Stables.

            Tangent Gallery, just last Thursday hosting Detroit Nerd Nite’s 1 year.

            Ghetto Blaster!


            Foran’s Grand Trunk.

            The Detroit Derby Girls.

            Corridor Sausage Co.

            Andy Didorosi and his Detroit Bus Company.

            The World’s Largest Buffalo Wild Wings.

            Hantz Farms / Hantz Woodlands.

            Are they the majority? Not by numbers, but by energy and ability and every measure that counts they are. The election of Mike Duggan shows it. With all the energy and effort they’ve put into Detroit, simply pulling the plug does them a disservice, and we should all hope that aspirations and efforts like theirs are rewarded, not squalshed.

            Detroit has a lot of problems; Most of them of her own making. But the same chaos and uncertainty has provided opportunities for growth and change. And given a chance, the people of Detroit finally decided to choose a change (Duggan). If we were going to pull the plug, the time was 10 years ago, when Kwame Kilpatrick was the choice. When the answer was simply “more of the same.” Now new life has taken hold, and we owe it its own chance.

          • 0 avatar

            Well, if it makes you feel any better, the “societal stragglers” are going to find their wallets to be quite a bit lighter in the near future.

        • 0 avatar

          Chicago has problems, but they also have an economic base that just isn’t there in Detroit. There’s a massive financial/services/trade sector that Chicago can successfully leverage – probably second only to New York in that respect. Lots of very affluent people live in the city, so it helps with their tax base. They have something to build on.

          Detroit just doesn’t have that kind of thing going on, at least in the city limits.

  • avatar

    He’s no Dr. Thompson, that’s for sure… Thompson could drink him under the table and then roll the table up and smoke it before Charlie woke up…

    However, I will say I was surprised how much I liked the book; I’m a Detroit neighbor and haven’t been impressed with his muck racking style on local TV when I’ve seen it. Seems like most of the other “I’m outraged and you should be too” local anchor rhetoric, and it’s easy to get outraged around here.

    His writing style is tighter though and he comes across as less belligerent in print, although still wound up. There are a LOT of amazing stories of survival and joy in Detroit proper along with the angst… he does a good job making them relevant.

    Plus, anyone who quits the Times to do ANYTHING much less move back here is commendable in my ledger.

    • 0 avatar

      He is a better writer than TV journalist. I do enjoy him on TV and think he is unique among reporters. He has gone for the low hanging fruit when it comes to corruption and mismanagement, but he also has longer pieces that take a big picture look at the city.

      It seems he’s had to do some of those “outrage” stories, so he can get 10 minute pieces on the 10 pm news about something he cares about. His current stories that have been shot around the country are very interesting. Fox2 seems to be letting Charlie have more freedom as of late. They’ve replaced his local political outrage segments with those from ML Elrick, who is probably better suited for it.

  • avatar

    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:

    • 0 avatar

      I read the article, and you’re right – it’s a fantastic piece of writing. I was also waiting for the one shining example to demonstrate why Detroit shouldn’t be firebombed out of existence, so that something worthwhile may grow from the ashes.

      That example never came.

      All it demonstrated is that some noble souls are trying against hope and reason to save the unsalvageable. For their sakes, I hope they manage to escape before the city inevitably implodes, so they may focus their efforts and goodwill on endeavors worthy of their sacrifices. Detroit is not.

      • 0 avatar

        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 ?

    • 0 avatar
      John Marks

      Thanks, that’s a great article.

      John Marks

  • avatar
    Dave M.

    This has been a fascinating strand to read. Thanks to all contributors. Lots of further reading planned.

    To bball etal best wishes!

Read all comments

Recent Comments

  • 993cc: It’s for people who would be happier with a Civic Wagon, which they haven’t sold since 1991.
  • slavuta: “No, it’s more than just sniffles” correct. It is also – fear mongering – political...
  • 993cc: ” …more useful interior space… whenever something is tailored for our market.” If that...
  • 993cc: +1 It also make it impossible to judge the size of a car. It drives me nuts, yet it’s so commonplace...
  • notapreppie: The right spec is the one that gets the 1.5L turbo motor. Oh, wait… that spec doesn’t exist.

New Car Research

Get a Free Dealer Quote

Who We Are

  • Adam Tonge
  • Bozi Tatarevic
  • Corey Lewis
  • Jo Borras
  • Mark Baruth
  • Ronnie Schreiber