Detroit: An American Autopsy by Charlie LeDuff

Detroit: An American Autopsy

by Charlie LeDuff

detroit leduff


Back in his broken hometown, Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Charlie LeDuff searches through the ruins for clues to its fate, his family’s, and his own. Detroit is where his mother’s flower shop was firebombed in the pre-Halloween orgy of arson known as Devil’s Night; where his sister lost herself to the west side streets; where his brother, who once sold subprime mortgages with skill and silk, now works in a factory cleaning Chinese-manufactured screws so they can be repackaged as “May Be Made in United States.”

Having led us on the way up, Detroit now seems to be leading us on the way down. Once the richest city in America, Detroit is now the nation’s poorest. Once the vanguard of America’s machine age—mass production, blue-collar jobs, and automobiles—Detroit is now America’s capital for unemployment, illiteracy, dropouts, and foreclosures. It is an eerie and angry place of deserted factories and abandoned homes and forgotten people. Trees and switchgrass and wild animals have come back to reclaim their right¬ful places. Coyotes are here. The pigeons have left. A city the size of San Francisco and Manhattan could neatly fit into Detroit’s vacant lots. After revealing that the city’s murder rate is higher than the official police number—making it the highest in the country—a weary old detective tells LeDuff, “In this city two plus two equals three.”

With the steel-eyed reportage that has become his trademark and the righteous indignation only a native son possesses, LeDuff sets out to uncover what destroyed his city. He embeds with a local fire brigade struggling to defend its city against systemic arson and bureaucratic corruption. He investigates politicians of all stripes, from the smooth-talking mayor to career police officials to ministers of the backstreets, following the paperwork to discover who benefits from Detroit’s decline. He beats on the doors of union bosses and homeless squatters, powerful businessmen and struggling homeowners, and the ordinary people holding the city together by sheer determination.

If Detroit is America’s vanguard in good times and bad, then here is the only place to turn for guid¬ance in our troubled era. While redemption is thin on the ground in this ghost of a city, Detroit: An American Autopsy is no hopeless parable. LeDuff shares an unbelievable story of a hard town in a rough time filled with some of the strangest and strongest people our country has to offer. Detroit is a dark comedy of the absurdity of American life in the twenty-first century, a deeply human drama of colossal greed and endurance, ignorance and courage.



About The Author

Charlie LeDuff is a writer, filmmaker and a multimedia reporter for The Detroit News. He is a former national correspondent for The New York Times.

He covered the war in Iraq, crossed the desert with a group of migrant Mexicans and worked inside a North Carolina slaughterhouse ascharlie leduff part of The Times series “How Race Is Lived in America,” which was awarded the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting.

In 2005 LeDuff was host and writer of “Only In America” – a 10-part television show of participatory journalism for the Discovery Times Channel. Among other things he brawled at a fight party held by an Oakland motorcycle gang, rode a bull at a gay rodeo, became a trapeze clown in a traveling circus of immigrants.

LeDuff also hosted and co-produced “United Gates of America” for the BBC in 2006 where he moved into a gated city at the edge of the Los Angeles sprawl. There, he encounters Nazi youth, a porno director, a Christian housewife, the town good-time girl, the angry Mexican gardener and other all-stars of American life.

He is the author of two books:
“Work and Other Sins: Life in New York City and Thereabouts” (Penguin Press)
“US Guys: The True and Twisted Mind of the American Man” (Penguin Press)

Previously, LeDuff, 42, has worked as a carpenter, middle school teacher and gang counselor in Detroit, a bartender in Australia and a baker in Denmark. He lived in a tree house in Alaska and slept on the Great Wall of China. He speaks decent Spanish and bad Russian.

LeDuff received a bachelor of arts degree in political science from the University of Michigan and a master of journalism degree from the University of California at Berkeley.

He lives with his wife and daughter near Detroit, Michigan.



4.0 out of 5 stars Grim, unrelenting, blunt and harsh – but not exploitative, February 1, 2013
This review is from: Detroit: An American Autopsy (Hardcover)
Customer review from the Amazon Vine™ Program (What’s this?)

A lot’s been said about “Decay Porn,” where reporters/writers/photographers from out of the city sort of parachute into Detroit and then pontificate about whatever they’ve observed. It’s not that their observations are invalid, but they obviously lack a personal perspective.

Charlie LeDuff, a native Detroiter who grew up, left, then came back, has the zeal of a missionary and the anger of someone who knows nothing he says can make a lick of difference. So this narrative of connected essayish accounts doesn’t offer a solution as much as a passionate sermon of rubbing-your-face-in-it. But if one can’t offer a solution, at least a writer can take a reader to the ground level that’s often overlooked by those more focused on the big picture.

Most of these chapters originally appeared as newspaper reportage that LeDuff has fleshed out in more detail. That’s not a problem, and he’s done a good job of connecting all the anecdotes together so it reads as a consistent narrative. LeDuff is both primary character and narrator, and his strong, sometimes strident, voice carries the story along.

His ‘characters,’ police, firemen, occasional politicians, are of the tough-as-nails variety. I don’t think the ‘good guys’ will mind their portrayals, even if they are a little over-the-top at times. With that, they seem to be treated fairly and honestly and their stories are not exploited for casual emotional gain.

The villains come across as slothful, incompetent and venal – all believable politicians and hacks.

It’s four stars mostly because it’s one-note at times. The stories are generally depressing and terrible, just like Detroit life, and there’s not too many bright spots. Hard to love a book like that – but LeDuff’s great writing style and powerful storytelling makes it easy to like. Any fan of Hunter Thompson will appreciate his take-no-prisoners literary approach.

I can’t imagine liking LeDuff if I met him. I feel like he’d be an overpowering personality interested in what people have to say only as long as it’s interesting to him. But that sort of focus on the “people as story” is how you end up with a strong piece of reportage like this. Tell the story, don’t spare the feelings, and if it’s harsh and ugly, people need to suck it up and learn a few things.


3.0 out of 5 stars Charlie LeDuff Confronts the Demons Within and Elsewhere in Detroit, January 28, 2013
This review is from: Detroit: An American Autopsy (Hardcover)
Customer review from the Amazon Vine™ Program (What’s this?)

Charlie LeDuff is a good writer, a strong stylist, and he writes, spare, powerful prose from the Gonzo, AKA Hunter S. Thompson School of journalism. His credentials are impressive. He is a Pulitzer Award winning author and a journalist who embraces confronting the underbelly of the American experience, its tormented, its down and out, its outcasts.

With the Great Recession of 2008, he feels drawn to go back to his roots in Detroit, which he argues is a microcosm of what is going to happen to the rest of America. He leaves his job at the New York Times, then the Los Angeles Times and takes a job at the rundown Detroit Times, described as moribund with chalk line around his new office area rug that looks like, as he describes, a murder scene.

In his several, short chapters he captures the despair of scandalous politicians, laid-off workers, his own dysfunctional family members, his own dysfunctional marriage, and his own demon-possessed self.

In the process, he’s held up by robbers at a gas station, he must confront the demons of losing his sister to a horrible, untimely death many years ago in Detroit; a call girl is murdered, there’s a sewage scandal, his brother’s dog dies from eating toxic dog food made in China; he finds a dead man frozen in ice; fighting with his wife about his obsession with his work and dealing with the darkness, they fight with such rage, that the cops arrive, hand-cuff him, and put him in the slammer.

The despair in this book is relentless with no comic respite and at times I felt there was an egotism that drove LeDuff to almost celebrate this dark madness, as if his graphic descriptions of it would somehow empower him.

The end result of these short chapters of brutal anecdotage is some strong pieces that stand well by themselves, but I’m sad to say they don’t add up to much. The chapters lack cohesiveness and we, the readers, who have a grasp of what’s going on in the headlines won’t be shocked by the Great Recession’s havoc on people’s personal lives.

So while I was eager to read a coherent narrative about a man confronting his personal demons in Motor City, what I got was some disjointed chapters from a man who needs to find a way to shape, refine and package his rage into a more coherent whole.


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