Review of new book Review of new non-fiction

Detroit – An American Autopsy, by Charlie LeDuff

An American Autopsy
(The Penguin Press, New York, 2013)

An autopsy is an examination to find the cause of death.  From the title, you can assume the subject, Detroit, is dead.  Every example LeDuff gives, every person’s life story, reads like an obituary, and the city is presented as if it were dead, over and done for, not to be resuscitated, been there, screwed that up and got the T-shirt to prove it.  Even the harsh black and white photos by Danny Wilcox Frazier underscores the message that the city is beyond saving.  LeDuff, a working journalist but a controversial one, grew up in Detroit, Michigan, US, and tells the story of the decline and fall of the city alongside the story of the fall into poverty and death by misdemeanour and suicide of his own family members. It’s not lightweight stuff. It has the ring of truth to it. Still, for every Charlie LeDuff who says the city is dead, another writer or analyst will say the opposite and deny the elephant in the room.

What then, are the causes of death set out by this son of Detroit? Firstly, Detroit was never that great in the first place. “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. People of older generations like to tell me about the swell old days of soda fountains and shopping stores and lazy Sarturday night drives. But the fact is Detroit was dying forty years ago when the Japanese began to figure out how to make a better car. The whole country knew the city and the region was on the skids, and the whole country laughed at us. A bunch of lazy, uneducated blue-collar incompetents.”  (p. 3)

Greed, corruption, lack of education, a refusal to work hard, entitlement, stupidity, not learning from mistakes, vanity, murder, lies, theft – all the sins in Christianity and every other religion are listed as causes. He points a big finger at the politics of race which dominates every aspect of life in Detroit, also ironically coming to the conclusion that one of his black ancestors came to Detroit and reinvented himself as a white man. LeDuff backs his arguments with public records, personal investigations, interviews and exposures, and statistics. He becomes what “The Detroit News”, his employer, calls itself; “The Troubler of the Public Conscience”.

Packard plant, East Side. (Photo by Danny Wilcox Frazier in "Detroit - An American Autopsy")
Packard plant, East Side. (Photo by Danny Wilcox Frazier in “Detroit – An American Autopsy”)

The language is rough, he names names (that you can look up afterwards) and gets in-your-face personal.  The descriptions of his down and out brothers, dead drug-addict sister, dead drug-addict niece, and dead aunt are really disturbing.  It makes you wonder how he managed not to end up like them. The portraits of the city bosses and auto manufacturing executives are insulting enough to generate many lawsuits.  He points out, chillingly, that what happened in Detroit could happen anywhere else in the US. I clearly saw in his depiction of the city the deterioration and failure of my own country of origin, South Africa.

Finally, you wonder, is there anything at all that indicates that he thinks Detroit will recover or reinvent itself? Perhaps, in the last lines of the book: “The grass in the field was neck-high, so high in fact I couldn’t make out the tree [where his sister had died]…then the grass rustled, rustled, startling me. Someone or something was coming on, but I couldn’t see through the tall stalks. I began to panic, realizing I was left high in the weeds, no knife, no gun, only a pen. ‘They crazy motherfuckers out here.’ 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…’Hey girl,”, I whispered to the fawn. “Where’s your mama?” The beast sniffed once, turned away and off she ran into the wild city.” The clue is in there – LeDuff fights the bad in the city with the only thing he has – a pen, his writing – and will continue to do so.

The book has been met with controversy, which is not surprising, and some would characterise it as being more of a “non-fiction novel” (depicting actual people and events but mixing them with fictitious allegations) or a memoir, than investigative journalism.  Whatever it is, it is engrossing and very thought-provoking. It has the nasty ring of truth about it. LeDuff points out what can happen when people become lazy, stupid and criminal. He essentially says Detroit died because things were too easy – the money, the lifestyle, the aspirations, and nothing easy is ever worth while.  Thinking about that made me remember a quote by screenplay and 1980s management theory author Scott R. Alexander: “All good is hard. All evil is easy. Dying, losing, cheating and mediocrity are easy. Stay away from easy.”  True, that.

Author profile:

Charlie LeDuff (Photo; The Michigan Citizen, August 01, 2013)
Charlie LeDuff (Photo; The Michigan Citizen, August 01, 2013)

Charlie LeDuff (born 1966) is a writer, filmmaker and a multimedia reporter for “The Detroit News”. He is a former national correspondent for The New York Times. He covered the war in Iraq, crossed the desert with a group of migrant Mexicans and worked inside a North Carolina slaughterhouse as part of “The Times” series “How Race Is Lived in America,” which was awarded the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting. LeDuff received a Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science from the University of Michigan and a Master of Journalism degree from the University of California at Berkeley. He lives with his wife and daughter near Detroit, Michigan. LeDuff has faced accusations of plagiarism and distortion in his career. Read more…

The clue is in the word “autopsy”:

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