Motown in mortem

By Bill Castanier

Detroit author writes requiem for rotting metropolis

Detroit author and journalist Charlie LeDuff doesn’t need a white suit, acid or a rich boy’s swagger to prove that he belongs among the greats of New (now old) Journalism. His new book not only gives him a seat at that table, but he gets to pick the entrée — and he certainly looks the part. The jacket cover of his new book “Detroit: An American Autopsy” shows LeDuff dressed in a leather vest, his shirt sleeves rolled above his elbows, cigarette dangling in his left hand and wearing black shades against the backdrop of the Detroit skyline — looking quite like Sean Penn in his tougher, meaner days. And that’s not even mentioning the striped cowboy boots.

LeDuff, 46, was raised in the suburbs of Detroit, and he writes with an intensity and passion about a city and its residents, both of which he loves. The author brings little joy to this dark look at a city on the ropes and way beyond being called hardscrabble.

LeDuff is among a handful of journalists who have taken the New Journalism of the 1960s to a whole new level; he recently did a segment in his underwear at his new reporting gig with Detroit Fox 2 News. He has also proved his chops in traditional journalism, winning a Pulitzer Prize while working at The New York Times before moving home to work at The Detroit News and to be closer to his family. His first newspaper job was with the Alaska Fisherman’s Journal.

LeDuff knows all about inverted pyramid journalism, but he has come to the conclusion it’s not for him. He also says that he thinks traditional journalism has lost its way.

“Why be a bore at something,” he said.

But “Detroit: An American Autopsy” is anything but boring — it’s a high-octane, grab-you-by-the-neck-and-shake-up-everything-you-know-about-humanity post-mortem examination. Starting with a frozen corpse and ending with a look at another more personal, tragic death, LeDuff takes you on a ride you will not soon forget.

When asked if his book is a form of literary ruins porn, he bristles.

“I feel it’s exactly the opposite,” LeDuff said. “The book is about people living and slogging through life and how do we get to a new day.”

Normally you would expect the fluff peddlers who consistently point to Midtown’s revival to attack the white boy from the suburbs (he lives Pleasant Ridge, about two miles north of Detroit’s northern border, 8 Mile Road), but LeDuff has walked the walk, He candidly talks the talk about his own family and their desperate travails while living in the city. His sister was in and out of hooking her whole adult life until she fatally fell out of a car traveling 80 mph. His niece died of a drug overdose. His mother, a single mom, toiled her whole life in a flower shop until it was destroyed by crime.

And if that isn’t enough cred, while writing the book he discovered his mixed-race heritage at a family funeral that includes a mulatto grandfather.

“I’m glad I didn’t hate myself,” LeDuff said. “It was like all at once I knew where I sprung from and it was, ‘Kunta Kinte, I found you.’”

LeDuff’s “Detroit” is reminiscent of David Simon’s “The Wire,” to which it is being favorably compared — the difference being this is real life. The author placed himself in the center of the action by embedding himself with the Detroit Fire Department and becoming its biggest cheerleader, to the disdain of the politicos. His reporting was critical to solving an arson murder of one Detroit firefighter.

But even after the absolute darkness of the book, LeDuff said he “doesn’t just think Detroit can come back, I know it.” He points to the revitalized car companies, the fresh water, the trade center to Canada and recent mayoral corruption trial as examples.

“But we have to reorder our political priorities,” he said. “We have to quit bleeding our children.”

The book ends with a tender, almost surreal moment, when LeDuff returns to the site of his beloved sister’s death. There, in an overgrown field, he discovers new life.

“That’s when she stopped in front of me, not ten feet away, unafraid,” he writes. “A spotted fawn, a pretty little thing…I don’t believe in reincarnation, but I do believe in symbolism.”

It’s not likely LeDuff will be asked to address the Detroit Chamber of Commerce any day soon (in the book he refers to the city as a “post-industrial sarcophagus”), but he recently did a segment for Fox News on golfing in Detroit. Of course, he did take a different approach, golfing 18 miles in downtown Detroit on the incredible stretches of vacant land while reporting what he saw.

In one memorable segment LeDuff is searching the high grass for a lost golf ball when a car goes by. A woman leaning out of the car window asks LeDuff to help her find her runaway daughter who she fears is going to commit suicide. When LeDuff asks how she knows that, she answers: “Because she took all my drugs.”

LeDuff compiled most of the material in the book from a two-year period while working at The Detroit News. When taking the job, he writes that he promised himself, “I’d build a castle of words so high on the banks of the Detroit River that they couldn’t help but see it from Times Square.”

Sunday’s New York Times book section carried a glowing review of LeDuff’s new book. Assigned to cover Detroit Council member Monica Conyers’ corruption case, he finds himself being groped by her in a dim lit Detroit Bar.

“Man, you can’t make Detroit up,” he said.