Monday, December 8, 2014

Book Review: Detroit, An American Autopsy

Anger and news are a powerful combination. There are those who get angry over breaking news. Then, there are those who get angry over investigations for what is or what is not discovered. As a journalist myself, there are stories that I've had, some in the form of a feature series, that left me shaking my head in disbelief and bordering on anger.

A similar affair occurred for journalist Charlie LeDuff when he left his reporting position at the New York Times and returned to his native Detroit to work at the Detroit News. His book Detroit: An American Autopsy (2013, Penguin) chronicles that period of time when he returned to the Motor City and saw how dire its situation was. At the time, the Great Recession was at its peak and both General Motors and Chrysler declared bankruptcy and Ford was not looking good either. Emergency personnel response times were terrible in parts of the city, arson was rampant and whole blocks were deserted, in part because of sky-high foreclosure rates, or had squatters. Understandably, LeDuff was furious over the lack of care in his hometown.

As he starts to unravel stories that indicate what caused the downfall of one of the nation's economic hubs, we learn a little about his own life as well. We see corrupt political figures go to jail, a man frozen in ice and a general sense of despair from the city's residents, as if they realize the problem is too big to overcome.

But the book has its problems. First, the man in ice story, one of the more memorable parts of the book, has had its validity questioned by other Detroit media outlets for various inconsistencies when the print version appeared in the Detroit News. Second, LeDuff can be an unlikeable gruff at times, but I think that's more of an extension of his anger at the city's sullen state. Third, LeDuff shows a lot of the problems in the city, but I don't think he quite got to the root causes and there are no solutions discussed. The latter issue didn't bother me as much because the story of Detroit is ongoing.

Grade: 3/5 stars. LeDuff's reporting has an edge to it that jumps off the page, but possible errors in one of the more memorable stories in the book as well as the incomplete dissection of the causes of the city's plight hold it back.

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