Charlie LeDuff’s book, Detroit: An American Autopsy, profiles the systematic decline of America’s once great metropolis.
Among writers and photographers, there is a genre of reporting that many people practice, yet few ever admit to intentionally indulging in. It’s called ruin porn.
Akin to a car crash on the side of the interstate, ruin porn is a detached and surreal view of places or events that have been devastated by disaster, man-made or otherwise. It’s the type of stuff that you would have seen plastered on front pages across the country right after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans back in 2005. Photos and column space were dedicated to the city’s dilapidated buildings weeks after the storm had passed.
For ruin porn aficionados, the city of Detroit has acted as a muse in recent years. With the city’s numerous abandoned buildings and unkempt city blocks, it’s no surprise why that would be the case. So it would be easy to dismiss Charlie LeDuff’s book, Detroit: An American Autopsy, as just another ruin porn book that eulogizes the city with poetic prose leaving behind it little to no substance.
You could do that, but you would be selling Detroit, and more importantly LeDuff as a writer, short.
The book chronicles LeDuff’s return to the Emerald City as a beat writer for the Detroit News. During his stint, LeDuff reported on various individuals ranging from overworked city firefighters to corrupt city officials to automobile executives to family members who lost loved ones to the city’s cycle of violence. It’s through these various perspectives that LeDuff’s Detroit builds its overarching narrative of a city dying from the inside-out, while its people struggle to not be forgotten.
Throughout the book, LeDuff uses a “man on the street” approach in telling these stories. While this does land LeDuff in some journalistic grey areas by becoming directly involved with the very stories that he’s covering, these minor indiscretions can be forgiven due to the book’s overall impact. By LeDuff choosing to tell these stories in the way that he does, he creates a weight of authority and credibility that most books just can’t. It’s also the reason you can separate LeDuff’s Detroit from your run-of-the-mill ruin porn book.
While ruin porn journalism takes a detached perspective to proceedings, LeDuff does anything but in Detroit. With every story of bureaucratic incompetency or moral corruption, you can sense the profound melancholy in LeDuff – this is even more evident in the audio book version – trying to ascertain reason among the chaos that engulfs a dying city. The end result is not of someone that is detached to the situation, but of someone with a vested interest in Detroit’s future, making the reader also care that much more.
At the end of the day, LeDuff’s Detroit is less of an autopsy – as the title suggests – and more of a cautionary tale for any US city in a post-recession America. While it’s easy to poke fun at the multiple levels of incompetency that has lead Detroit to this point, it’s also easy to forget that Detroit was once an incubator for the American Dream. With enough corruption and bad luck, the fate of Detroit could happen to any US city given enough time and neglect. Because as LeDuff eulogizes, “go ahead and laugh at Detroit because you are laughing at yourself.”
Reviewer’s Take: Detroit: An American Autopsy gives the reader a rare perspective of a struggling US city that very few books do, which in itself makes it worth reading. Also I would definitely recommend everyone listen to the audio book version of Detroit. Eric Martin narrates the book and gives even more bite to Charlie LeDuff’s already powerful prose.