I have only been to Detroit twice. The first time I had a grand time with two of my daughters, both preteens. It was in 1991 and I was the Editorial Director of the Crisis magazine, the official publication of the NAACP.
Detroit was our kind of town at the NAACP. Coleman Young was the longtime first black mayor, and welcomed us with opened arms; the new Renaissance Center was booming. The hotel we stayed in on the famed Waterfront, with a view of Canada, right across the river, was first rate, and rivaled any of the many big, medium and small cities hotels we had stayed at, as we held our convention each year.
And the plus was that Detroit had one of the largest urban memberships of the NAACP then anywhere in the United States; and the local chapter’s annual Freedom Fund Dinner, was the social event of the year for blacks that matter in Detroit, and brought us much needed income.
Most importantly, for me at least, everyone at the convention had read or heard of the Crisis.
To be sure, there was much seriousness of purpose at this convention, especially given all the many deadly serious problems blacks faced in America, and especially in Detroit. Still, there was also plenty of time for back slapping, loud laughter, dancing all night, and general carrying on, and enjoying each other’s company.
My two girls were all excited, and loved what they were experiencing; especially now knowing that their friendly, modest dad was such a bigwig showoff.
These annual conventions were something I always look forward to, and this year in the famed city of Detroit, it didn’t disappoint. Even Jack Kemp, then in charge of HUD under Bush the First, showed up.
Years later, in 2005, Rob Morton, CEO of Morton Books, Inc., sent me back to Detroit, this time to help organized a book party for a new author, and carry the Morton Books, Inc.’ flag.
And this is where I encountered the Detroit Charlie LeDuff writes so well about in his
grim theater of the absurd. Detroit: An American Autopsy
I was driven down desolated street after street, as Morton Books’ author, a retired African American school teacher, gave me warning after warning about these deadly streets.
This was a far cry from the fancy Renaissance Center, and the rest of the riverfront, with its statue of the famous Joe Louis, who once lived in Detroit, guarding the entry way.
And where were those well-dressed blacks, and that small spattering of liberal whites I had so much fun with at the NAACP annual convention?
They were nowhere to be seen on these empty, gloomy, ghostlike streets I was staring out on in disbelief. I had never seen anything like this before. .
LeDuff , a former New York Times and Detroit News feature writer, is a native son of Detroit, and driven by family demons, he could not help but return to his hometown, even as it was on the brink of total chaos.
. He is the descendants’ of French Cajuns from Louisiana, Native Americans, hillbillies, and as he discovered only a few years ago, by chance, that the first LeDuff’s to reach Detroit from Louisiana were classified by the census as M for mixed race. That M was quickly replaced as W as soon as they landed in Detroit.
These were the people, along with huge numbers of real blacks, part of the largest internal immigration in American history, escaping finally, from their imprisonment in the South-- that flocked to Detroit; all hearing the beckoning call of hard work and high wages.
Henry Ford is not my favorite American Capitalist because of his vast improvement of the use of the assemble line in large scale manufacturing as many would have guessed, but because he was the first of the Robber Barons that had that eureka idea: If I pay my workers a decent wage, then they can buy my product.
As LeDuff points out, the good times started rolling after Ford’s brilliant, but obvious, insight, and Detroit became the richest city in America.
“Detroit” he writes, “in the nineteenth century was the center of the nation’s carriage and wheel and stove industries because of its lumber and the rich ore in the upper reaches of Michigan. This set the stage for tinkerers like Ransom Olds, who was among the nation’s largest carriage manufacturers before he turned to cars. Henry Ford, a farmer, built his first automobile in Highland Park in 1899. Detroit would rapidly become the world’s machine shop, its factory, growing in population from 300,000 to 1.3 million in the twenty-five years following Ford’s grand opening.”
Here, LeDuff quotes the British politician and author Ramsay Muir, who in 1925 sniffed, “It is the home of mass production, very high wages and colossal profits, of reckless installment buying and shifting labour surplus. It regards itself as the temple of a new gospel of progress to which I will give the name Detroitism.”
To be sure.
Workers didn’t need much education and ingenious ideas like easy credit and the layaway plan was offered to them by the car makers.
I read page after page of LeDuff’s riveting, heated prose, part auto-biography, most his often hollowing experiences as a reporter for the Detroit News. It was stylistically a cross between Jimmy Breslin and Ernest Hemingway, of murder, political and business malfeasance and cluelessness, race baiting and just sheer hopelessness and despair.
I kept thinking of, as I turned page after page, of all things, San Francisco.
This line of thought started after I read this from our author of how his friends and family regarded life as the big change was about to descend on them, as the Japanese had learned to make better cars, cheaper than Detroit, and everyone in the world would soon know it..
“Nobody bothered to get educated,” he writes.” My sister and brothers and Carrie and Doc and too many others dropped out of high school, yet nobody went to work in the automobile plants. You suspected the work was too hard and the union made the work too hard to get.”
San Francisco, and the entire Bay Area, was also undergoing a transition from its blue collar roots around the same time, as thousands of well-paid dock workers, who did the back-breaking work of loading and unloading giant ships, had been forever displaced by the rise of the container ship.
Yet, San Francisco, and the Bay Area, had something else in its collective DNA: Long Beach, which nurtured the Beats; writers, thinkers and visionaries lurked in seedy dives and garages, bolstered by the very real, quiet presences of two world class universities, UC Berkeley and Stanford.
When the time came for San Franciscans and Bay Area folks to readapt, to change from brawn to brains, they more than rose to the occasion and create Apple, Silicon Valley and the modern gee wiz electronic world we live in today.
Today, that great two bedroom apartment in the Upper Mission overlooking the East Bay, I had for a song when I was a Visiting Professor at UCBerkeley in the 80s, would today cost me $4,500, if I was lucky.
Detroit was not so lucky, as LeDuff’s book testifies to. Today, in Detroit, you can’t even give apartments like that away.
With Alice Munro’s new book, Dear Life, she continues to explore the themes she has delved into throughout her long career, namely regret, desire, greed, love, and passion. This book seems to come “full circle” for Munro and is reminiscent of her earliest stories.
As a young author she often wrote about childhood and the way our childhoods remain mysterious because as children we do not have the knowledge or experience to understand what has happened. Children look at an event and try to decipher what the event means, its significance.
As the children age, they look back at the event and see that they were wrong; or, at least the certainty they had about the event has been shaken.
Alice Munro’s terrain is rural Canada, where the harshness of the landscape makes for a certain stoicism in her characters. But underneath this steeliness, the characters are as restless and unsettled as the rest of us. She has written many times about a father who starts up a business in which he plans to sell fox fur and mink.
The business is always a bust, but moments of redemption always circulate around this speculative business. In one story, for example, one of the workers may or may not be gay. In any case, this man causes a “problem” and abruptly leaves. What this problem is exactly--whether it has to do with his sexuality or something else--is the question that resonates with the young narrator.
Munro has written that she sometimes begins with an actual event or character, but by the time her story is finished so much has been fictionalized that it is impossible to see the autobiographical origin.
However, in her latest work she has included four stories that are actually autobiographical. Munro addresses the stories this way: “The final four works in this book are not quite stories. They form a separate unit, one that is autobiographical in feeling, though not, sometimes, entirely so in fact. I believe they are the first and last—and the closest—things I have to say about my own life.”
To me, it is interesting that the “closest thing she has to say about her own life” are the events that occurred when she was young—not when she was a new mother (which she has written about) or about leaving a husband (which she has also written about many, many times).
It seems significant (at least to me) that she chooses to go way back. I remember hearing somewhere that “anyone who has gone through childhood can be an author,”
. With Munro, you have to wonder if childhood holds the “deepest” part of us. Munro suggests that events in childhood can be deconstructed and re-imagined indefinitely. For example in Munro’s story “The Eye,” a heart-wrenching story about a young girl (presumably Munro) who has a crush on the family’s housekeeper, a jolly girl named Sadie.
The young narrator has to come to terms with Sadie’s awful, unexpected death. When viewing her dead body, the narrator imagines that her eyelid moves. For years she ponders this—was it possible? She writes: “Yet for a long time when I did think of her, I never questioned what I believed had been shown to me. Long, long afterwards, when I was not at all interested in any unnatural display, I still had in my mind that such a thing had happened… Until one day, one day when I may even have been in my teens, I knew with a dim sort of hole in my insides that now I didn’t believe it anymore.”
This is not to say that the childhood stories are my favorites. I love those, but I really love the stories where a character is blind-sided, taken by surprise by a turn of events that she doesn’t see coming.
This usually involves a man luring a woman, then abandoning her. Some might find this sub-set of Munro stories sensational or overly dramatic, but I find them thrilling.
She has written this particular story many times and her latest collection, Dear Life, is no exception.
This trope gets explored in the story “Amundsen,” a story which originally appeared in the New Yorker (as do many of Munro’s stories). In this story, a young woman takes a teaching job in a sanatorium where a vibrant, yet prickly doctor works. He soon woos her and asks her to marry him.
The young woman gives herself with abandon, yet realizes that she shouldn’t let him see the depths of her desire, for that would be threatening to the man. Munro writes, “Right now I believe I could lie down for him in any bog or mucky hole, or feel my spine crushed against any roadside rock, should he require an upright encounter. I know too that I must keep these feelings to myself.”
This “bottling” of desire, this negotiating within oneself in order to get what one wants is a theme that plays again and again in Munro’s work.
Munro seems to be saying that men want “desirable” women, but they don’t want the women to desire… or at least in an unseemly way. In this case, the doctor begs out of the wedding after letting the young woman feel that they are of similar minds and temperaments. The abandonment is crushing, and one that the young woman never gets over. Even in old age she writes after briefly seeing the doctor on a street in Vancouver, “Nothing changes really about love.”
Another favorite of mine in this collection is story called “Corrie.” In this story, the reader has to pay attention (or go back and read it through again) because motives and expectations are not what they appear to be on the surface. Blackmailing is involved, as well as a young heiress, and (again) a man that is seemingly good, but is he really?
Like “Corrie,” many of Munro’s stories are open to interpretation. Perfect for book-club discussions Many writers have given credit to Munro as shaping and inspiring them, including Jonathan Franzen and Cheryl Strayed.
Strayed describes writing to Munro as a young author and getting an encouraging letter back.
How hard was it for Munro to become a writer? Her daughter describes her mother as being in despair over her writing. She describes coming home from school and seeing her mother sitting in a darkened house working on her stories.
I once came upon a bookstore when I was in Canada called “Munro’s.” Naturally, I bought a book by Alice Munro when I was there and said to the pretty young clerk, “I love Alice Munro.”
“So do I,” the young woman answered, “she’s my mother.”
So, at least in real life this girl loved her mother. In many stories that very fear is explored—that the mother will have to leave her children behind when she follows a lover, an anguished decision. So, Munro asks us the question—what do we owe our children, our parents, our lovers. But ultimately in the lonely, astonishing landscape Munro creates the question becomes: What do we ultimately owe ourselves?