The first thing I thought about Detroit: An American Autopsy is that the writing is fantastic. A journalist telling a story of the final days of Detroit reads like a non-fiction work by Thomas Ligotti. Some of the deaths described in the book rival My Work Is Not Yet Done — indeed, reading Detroit, it’s obvious that Ligotti is a Detroiter. The city whose motto is “Speramus Meliora — Resurgent Cineribus” (We Hope For Better Things and Will Rise from the Ashes)– whose city seal features a depiction of Detroit burning to the ground – is a store of fire, ice, and waiting. Author Charlie LeDuff writes like a pulp writer, bringing Detroit to vivid life in the same way that Mike Daisey brought the iPhone factory to life for thousands who have seen his play or heard his work.
The second thing is I bet part of it’s made up.
Indeed, binging Charlie LeDuff brings up third sentence in his Wikipedia article, “LeDuff has won a number of prestigious journalism awards, but has also faced accusations of plagiarism and distortion throughout his career” (never a good sign!) No wonder he reminded me of Daisey…
So what to make of Detroit? It’s great writing? And the great writer, Charlie LeDuff?
The writing is fantastic. There is no doubt about that. In the same way you are missing part of the human experience if you never hear Mike Daisey, you are missing out on life by not reading LeDuff’s writing.
The story of Detroit is fantastic — firefighters, terrorists, corrupt politicians, hookers, even a reality TV show. As I said, this is a non-fiction Ligotti work. Detroit the book is a great read. Detroit the city seems really, really terrible. Really bad.
The imagery is vivid, and not necessarily false. I’ve never been to Detroit, but just because LeDuff may be a Mike Daiseyish storyteller does not make the message he has false. I’ve been to China numerous times. I’ve been to factory towns. I’ve spoken with people in the factories. The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs is fundamentally true, even if it’s not fundamentally journalism.
The worst part of Detroit is the lack of context it gives. It’s an excellent piece of thrill-storytelling about a place, but the reasons it gives are superficial and impressionistic. Nature’s Metropolis and Seattle: Past to Present both give a sense of place and time, of the economy and the history and the heroes. Detroit only gives the macabre.