July 20 2016 11:43 AM

Jeff Vande Zande’s “Detroit Muscle” looks for an off-ramp from drug addiction

In Midland author Jeff Vande Zande’s 2010 book, “Threatened Species,” a father kidnaps his son and they embark on a trip through Michigan.

Vande Zande takes readers on the road again with his new book, “Detroit Muscle.”

“Yeah, I always try to find a way to work in a road trip,” Vande Zande said.

A while ago, Vande Zande and a buddy regularly made the trip to the Upper Peninsula to visit Vande Zande’s dad, who was dying of cancer.

“Road trips are reflective and there’s not much to do,” Van Zande said. “You can make real connections.”

The book's titular “muscle” refers to a 1968 Firebird protagonist Robby Cooper and his grandfather Otto use for their Huck Finn-like adventure. Vande Zande said initially he wanted a GTO, but the Firebird has a “rising from the ashes” aura that appealed to him.

Robby, 20, has just returned to Michigan from a long stint in rehab due to an OxyContin addiction. He’s knocking about, trying to stay clean, keep a job, connect with a pregnant girlfriend and make amends for some of his drug addled decisions, when his aging grandfather proposes a road trip to visit his remaining two sons. Robby’s father is dead.

Vande Zande said his initial idea was to use Robby and the road trip as a metaphor for Michigan.

“Michigan has detoxed from the auto industry but we still don't know what we want to be — a cool city, a film state,” he said. “Otto’s sons, like a lot of Michiganians, feel abused.”

However, as in most road trips, there are some dead ends, roundabouts and detours in “Detroit Muscle.” About midway through the book, it becomes Otto’s story, in Vande Zande’s view.

The author worked hard to give the book its own voice and convey a powerful message to those in the addiction and recovery community.

“The book puts a real face on addiction, especially for those who do not have any exposure to it,” Vande Zande said. He vividly describes the fear and panic felt by someone in recovery, along with the helplessness felt by those around them.

The novel is stripped down to the bare essence. Vande Zande attributes its brevity to his experience writing screenplays, a discipline he teaches at Delta Community College along with composition, literature and fiction writing.

“Like a movie script, I never got into the character’s head,” Vande Zande said.

Readers only get to know Robby through his actions, but that’s enough. For the first half of the book, Robby is not very likable.

Vande Zande thinks that one reason the recovery community is embracing “Detroit Muscle” is that it ends positively. He thanks a perceptive editor for convincing him that a more ambiguous ending was not the way to go.

“I didn’t set out to capitalize on the addiction community, but the book offers some hope,” he said.

Vande Zande contrasts the positive message of “Detroit Muscle” with some of the more well-known books that feature addiction as a central theme, such as Jim Carroll’s “The Basketball Diaries”, Bret Easton Ellis’ “Less than Zero” and, to some extent, Jay McInerney’s “Bright Lights, Big City.” But Vande Zande does adopt these authors’ minimalist styles.

The author has also managed to insert two of his other loves in the book: the Mackinac Bridge and fly fishing.

“I love Michigan’s landscape, and I try to get my characters into fly fishing,” he said. “I find myself detoxing on the river even if I’m only thinking about fish.”

Although Vande Zande has given the book a sense of optimism, it is not a Pollyanna-ish take on drug addiction and recovery.

“Everyone has some exposure to [drug addiction] and too many people out there have the perception that you must be of low character if you are involved in it,” he said. “Often it starts with some innocuous injury.” That’s how Robby gets hooked in “Detroit Muscle.”

But Vande Zande also pointed out that there is a deeper pain in some cases of drug addiction and that successful treatment has to address that underlying cause.

Vande Zande is at his best when his characters are in a car, searching for an America that is changing before their eyes. He’s managed to pour the jazz-like staccato of Kerouac’s “On the Road” and John Steinbeck’s folksy “Travels with Charley” into a tortuous journey of redemption.

Jeff Vande Zande
Author talk and book signing
7 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 4
Schuler Books and Music Meridian Mall
1982 W. Grand River Ave., Okemos
(517) 349-8840