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A native son’s grim account of hard-luck lives

by Jeffrey Burke

Bloomberg

DETROIT: An American Autopsy, by Charlie LeDuff. Penguin Press, 2013, 286 pp., $27.95 (hardcover)

Charlie LeDuff’s “Detroit: An American Autopsy” is a hard-eyed look at some of the recent villains and victims of a city battered for half a century by political corruption, racial strife and industrial collapse.

LeDuff is a former New York Times reporter who was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize for a series about race. After 20 years, he returned to his native town in 2008 and took a job with the Detroit News.

He has a stake in the story: Members of his family, which has Michigan roots dating to the early 18th century, still struggle to make a life in Detroit.

So he combines heart with an ear and eye for hard-nosed, hard-luck characters in real dramas. Some of the dialogue seems lifted right from Elmore Leonard.

The same talent for getting inside lives on the sidelines was showcased in LeDuff’s “Work and Other Sins: Life in New York City and Thereabouts” (2004) and the blue-collar travelogue “US Guys: The True and Twisted Mind of the American Man” (2007). The latter’s chapter on Detroit shadowed Mike Carlisle, one of the best homicide detectives in the nation’s murder capital, who also proves useful in the new book.

Besides murder, Detroit claims downside superlatives for arson, poverty, unemployment, illiteracy, foreclosures, segregation and mayoral scandal, LeDuff writes. About 250,000 people fled the city in the first decade of this century. “Empty lots are returning to prairie and woodland as the city depopulates.”

Helping the city achieve top marks in the wrong places is a colorful cast, including Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and his Byzantine tale of scandal and indictments, the smooth-skulled political operative Adolph Mongo, and City Councilwoman Monica Conyers, who failed the bar exam four times.

The story starts with a man frozen in ice at the bottom of an abandoned warehouse’s elevator shaft. Only his shoes are sticking out. An observer’s shocked reaction is: “I can’t believe he’s still got his shoes.” The man turns out to be related to Otis Redding.

LeDuff digs into the dead man’s life when he isn’t bird-dogging city-contract shenanigans that leave the fire department for the nation’s arson capital short of good equipment. A fireman’s criminal death weaves through the book, culminating in a stirring trial scene.

The city’s reputation for youths at risk earned it a mention in President Barack Obama’s second inaugural address, along with Appalachia and Newtown, as places where children must be kept “safe from harm.” Visiting the mother of a high school senior named Chaise killed in a mistaken drive-by, LeDuff sees the remains of another son, shot in the head at 14, in an urn on the mantel and the space already cleared for Chaise’s urn.

” ‘That’s a hell of a pair of bookends,’ ” he says. The mother replies: ” ‘You know? I was thinking that.’ ”

His own family’s story includes a streetwalking sister who died while riding with a john and whose daughter OD’d six weeks after LeDuff returned to Detroit.

LeDuff can be pugnacious, obnoxious and self-righteous, all useful qualities for journalism, but his “Detroit” lives well outside the conventional fourth estate (and unfortunately eschews notes or index). He calls it “a book of reportage” and “a memoir of a reporter returning home” in the same paragraph. Check him out on the dust jacket — the front cover, not the back flap — looming or mourning over the word “Detroit,” looking like the day-job version of a weary Bruce Springsteen.

At the end, as LeDuff stands in neck-high grass in the abandoned lot where his sister died, a fawn startles him and seems to conjure the possibility of hope. The feeling dims somewhat with the book’s closing portfolio of black-and-white Detroit images shot by photographer Danny Wilcox Frazier and as bleak as any of LeDuff’s painfully drawn pictures.

For a slightly rosier view and more conventional journalism, try Mark Binelli’s “Detroit City Is the Place to Be: The Afterlife of an American Metropolis.” Published in November, it covers roughly the same years as LeDuff but looks at signs of improvement, from urban farming to vanguard artists to technology investment.