By THOMAS LYNCH
Every postmortem requires a corpse, and in Charlie LeDuff's "Detroit: An American Autopsy," the dead are everywhere: the author's sister, an addict and streetwalker, who bailed out of a john's speeding van, headlong into the trunk of a tree; the sister's daughter, killed by a heroin overdose; a firefighter who dies fighting an arson fire in an abandoned home; a high-school boy shot dead for smirking at a thug on a moped; a young girl shot by police during a raid being filmed by a reality TV show. The dead are everywhere.
Detroit: An American Autopsy
By Charlie LeDuff
Penguin Press, 286 pages, $27.95
"Detroit" opens in prologue with a serviceable metaphor for the rotting city—a dead man frozen into a pool of water at the bottom of an elevator shaft in an abandoned warehouse on Detroit's west side. The homeless play hockey nearby. Only his legs and feet are sticking out of the ice "like Popsicle sticks" in a spectacle of neglect. Detroit's fall from grace goes beyond a community's failure to thrive. It fails even the dead. The living keep leaving, the dead keep piling up at the Wayne County Morgue, where their corpses await claiming from families hoping for the winning number or the ship to come in so they can pay for the final dispositions. The dead man is eventually identified by siblings who, as families of addicts eventually learn, they are powerless: Though they loved him, they couldn't fix him.
One cannot read Mr. LeDuff's amalgam of memoir and reportage and not be shaken by the cold eye he casts on hard truths. His is a gift for augmenting conventional wisdoms with an unblinking scrutiny of disorder, disease, dysfunction and death. "Detroit: An American Autopsy" is like a walk through the back wards of the pest house or an illustrated edition of the Book of Job. The stacked cadavers, the switchgrass and potholes, the sores and boils are manifest. What also inhabits this record—apart from anger, outrage and disbelief—is the ever present sadness, the caught breath and long sigh of the despairing and helpless, the lacrimae rerum, the tears of things.
Of course, any book about Detroit is a book about decomposition and the culture's cluelessness about what to do with the remains. The bodies and rubble have become world famous. "Ruin porn"—photographs of the city's crumbling buildings and factories—has become a marketable art form. The author has a nose for putrefactions beyond the infrastructure and architecture. The ruin extends to a way of life.
He comes by his tuition honestly. Mr. LeDuff grew up in Detroit—on Joy Road, no irony intended—and, after years of world wandering he landed a 10-week minority internship with the New York Times. (He's Louisiana Creole, Ojibway, a member of northern Michigan's Chippewa tribe, and, he discovers in the course of this book, also part African-American.) His 10 weeks at the Times turned into more than 10 years of staff writing and a portion of a Pulitzer Prize for his part in "How Race Is Lived in America," a 15-part series published in 2000. In 2008, he left the Times to return to Detroit and his hometown paper, the Detroit News, bringing his wife and daughter and hopes to reconnect with family and the place of his upbringing. This book is a collection of stories published in the News and in Mother Jones and elsewhere, and broadcast on WJBK, the Fox affiliate in Detroit for which Mr. LeDuff now does on-air journalism.
A little gonzo, a little gumshoe, some gawker, some good-Samaritan—it is hard to ignore reporting like Mr. LeDuff's, even if he seems to think that history happens mostly whenever and wherever he goes looking for it: In the cover photo for the book (by Danny Wilcox Frazier, who contributes a folio of black and white images as an artful coda to this book) Mr. LeDuff looks like a cross between Bruce Springsteen and Hunter S. Thompson, with sunglasses and cigarette, leather vest and stars and stripes cowboy boots.
His boldness serves the book well, however, as he is willing to connect the dots between the derelict city, its feckless and malfeasant political class, and the nation's general fall from grace. "Detroit can no longer be ignored, because what happened here is happening out there," he writes. "Neighborhoods from Phoenix to Los Angeles to Miami are blighted with empty houses and people with idle hands. . . . 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." This may be prescient, but his theory might just as likely miss the point: that Detroit's is a perfect storm of poverty, racism, corruption and political mischief unlike anything else in the nation's urban landscape.
The book's finest chapter is "Trains, Planes and Automobiles," which makes a credible effort at connecting the slow death of Detroit to its own history and forces beyond its boundaries. It closes with the author, haunted by dead family and strangers, returning to the Brightmoor district of Detroit, to the bar near the crossroads of Five Mile and Telegraph where his late sister had her last drink before she got into the white van from which she would, moments later, jump to her death. Standing in the neck-high overgrowth of the vacant lot she died in, Mr. LeDuff cannot make out the tree that killed her, but something is moving in the grass.
That's when she stopped in front of me, not ten feet away, unafraid. A spotted fawn, a pretty little thing, barely thigh-high with black bulbous eyes that didn't seem to fit her skull.
I don't believe in reincarnation either, but I do believe in symbolism.
"Hey girl," I whispered to the fawn. "Where's your mamma?"
The beast sniffed once, turned away and off she ran into the wild city.
There are still signs of life in Detroit, vital signs, and places where the city not only survives, it thrives. The sons and daughters of the postwar, post-riot, post boom and bust generations who left the city in their Chevrolets, are returning to Detroit as artists and musicians, urban farmers and filmmakers. Young doctors and rock stars, hip-hoppers and publicans, teachers and students, have evolved beyond the soft, wink-and-nod, suburban racism that made Detroit one of the most segregated cities in the nation. These young city-dwellers—hopeful and visionary—are finding their own ways through the ruins. They are do-it-yourselfers, who meet the old-school, Kabuki theater of politics in Lansing and city hall with a savvy new-frontierism and self-sufficiency that built this nation and may well rebuild Detroit. For 300 years, the city has been a study in human enterprise and industry, and hometown to the creative, inventive and restorative arts. Those who have underestimated Detroit's resilience, from Chief Pontiac to Mitt Romney, have come to grief. Detroit, Mr. LeDuff reminds us, has plenty to go around.
And if he wants to be the cover boy of the current story, he has, on the evidence, earned the right. Whether the fate of Detroit is global, national, regional or local news remains to be seen. But its grim and hopeful narrative, told here by a reliable witness, is more than worthy of careful consideration.—Mr. Lynch, a native Detroiter, lives in Milford, Mich., where he writes poems and directs funerals. His most recent book is "The Sin-eater: A Breviary."
A version of this article appeared February 9, 2013, on page C7 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: The City That Always Weeps.