The Great Recession hit Detroit like an economic version of Hurricane Katrina, driving citizens from homes and neighborhoods by the hundreds of thousands. As with New Orleans, events left neighborhoods abandoned, shattered windows and broken doorways gaping into dark northern nights like Yorick’s skull … with thousands of his leering relatives.
It happened before to Motor City, which sadly has come to be America’s ultimate boom-or-bust metropolis. Despite all Henry Ford’s industry and innovation, and the gleaming dream he muscled into being, Detroit turned out to have not one, but two, Achilles heels.
First, the city economy depended on a product – the automobile – vulnerable to one kind of crisis after another. The energy crisis of the 1970s shuttered many businesses. Carmakers got slammed a second time by a not-so-Great recession in the 1980s, and then with death by a thousand cuts from the rise of competitive Japanese vehicles.
Even worse for the city’s image, bloody race riots in 1943 and1967 turned sections of the Motor City into charred, unlivable ruins. In the 1967 event just days after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., 43 people died and close to 1,200 suffered injury.
This bewildering Detroit canvas, perhaps because of its still-smoldering holes, lately seems to be the stuff of dreams … or nightmares … for good writers.
Dearborn, the financially blighted suburb, gave setting to Sean Madigan Hoen’s brittle Songs Only You Know (Soho Press 2014), a memoir of the young author’s barely-in-control relations with a punk band and drug-dazed father. Paste reviewer Jay Goldmark rated the work 9.5 on our magazine’s scale of 10, and extolled its “incredibly violent and tender nonfictional world.”
Now we can extol a fictional account of Motor City.
Bill Morris, a staff writer at The Millions and author of two heralded novels, Motor City (Pocket Books 1993) and All Souls’ Day (Avon 1998), spins an ambitious tale of murder and maladroit justice in his native city. From elements of the Civil Rights Movement, the 1967 riots and the 1968 professional baseball season, Morris assembles a sleek crime novel that runs with a wide-open throttle, Motown playing on the radio and the Detroit Tigers playing for a World Series up the road ahead.
Morris builds his story on the fault line between blacks and whites in Detroit. The protagonist, a disillusioned young black Alabamian named Willie Bledsoe, moves to Detroit to get away from those he perceives as Civil Rights Movement sell-outs, a cast that includes Dr. King and many other principal figures of the black struggle. Willie leaves activist work at a feckless post with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee to go north, intending to write a memoir that connects broken dots. He wants to prove the Movement will be doomed to failure by the compromises of its leaders.
In Detroit, Willie connects with his gun-running brother, a man traumatized by years of combat in Vietnam and nursing a very different, very dangerous, kind of anger. On a hot night in 1967, with city streets smoking and snipers shooting at anything that moves, the two brothers – maybe more burned out than Detroit – find themselves on a rooftop with weapons.
Enter Frank Doyle, a veteran cop who knows Chopin when he hears it and can cook a mean Italian meal. He works the last unsolved murders on the race riot desk, one of them personal: The elderly wife of a friend took an anonymous bullet from a rooftop on the last night of the riots. Doyle restlessly considers the almost-cold case. Clues come scarce, but Doyle refuses to give up on what appears to be an unsolvable murder.
He gets a break. Evidence begins to point to Bledsoe, who works a day job at a white country club. As the investigative story builds, it revs the engines of the novel to life, and off we go.
Morris writes a smart, brave book. Not many white writers today will cast themselves into the skins of black characters, knowing the risks: accusations of patronage, attacks by the “how dare you” crowd, cultural land mines no education or friendship can foresee. The N-word appears, early and often, but authentically, never gratuitously. The author writes it the way people use it, black and white, every day, all over. It’s marvelous to see Morris try to capture reality in fiction this way, undaunted by those who watch over fences without playing his game.
Morris begins Motor City Burning with a scene on Opening Day of the 1968 baseball season for the Detroit Tigers. That year, history tells us, Denny McLain would be the last pitcher to win 30 games in a season. Tiger pitcher Mickey Lolich would amaze baseball and the St. Louis Cardinals by pitching three complete World Series games and winning them all, the last against feared Cardinal ace, Bob Gibson. A blended baseball team (black players like Willie Horton and Gates Brown; white players like Norm Cash and Al Kaline) raised the hopes of Detroit in the same way the Saints inspired Katrina-damaged New Orleans football fans with a Super Bowl win in 2009. Morris shifts every few chapters to the baseball diamond and this metaphor of racial cooperation, but he writes so engagingly we never feel a heavy moral hand.
Sages tell young fiction writers to write what you know. Who but a Detroit native could describe the smell of Tiger Stadium as Morris does?
It was equal parts mustard, sweat, stale beer, urine, popcorn, wet wool, vomit, perfume, cigar smoke and boiled pork. It was that musty smell iron gives off after is has stood in one place through fifty-six scorching summers and fifty-six Arctic winters and an unknowable number of sleet storms and baseball games and football games, half-time pageants and fistfights and pennant drives, after it has absorbed the shuffling of millions of pairs of feet, heard the guttural animal roar of cheers and boos and taunts, after it has housed the whole range of human emotions, from ecstasy to scorn to despair, that touch the lives of people who live in a sports-mad city like Detroit.
Morris also mentions, but dwells less centrally, on Detroit’s music madness. (The author created a first-rate mix-tape of songs mentioned in the book, and he plays them on book tour stops to embellish readings.) Morris lets Motown, where whites and blacks famously composed hits, and Tiger Stadium, where whites and blacks banged out different hits, demonstrate how beautiful black and white together can be.
All the rest of Detroit, even at book’s end, feels a faded, immoral gray. Crimes go unsolved, wounds go unhealed, sins go unforgiven. Morris leaves us a vision of his mother city as a place filled with as much sin and misery as New Orleans, a place that might not deserve salvation without tribulation … lots of it.
Charles McNair works as Books Editor at Paste. His latest novel, Pickett’s Charge, chronicles the adventures of the last Confederate soldier on a mission of vengeance to kill the last Yankee.