Detroit: An American Autopsy

Hardcover | October 14, 2014

byCharlie Leduff

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A New York Times Bestseller

“A book full of both literary grace and hard-won world-weariness... Iggy Pop meets Jim Carroll and Charles Bukowski” –Kirkus, STARRED REVIEW


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.

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From the Publisher

A New York Times Bestseller“A book full of both literary grace and hard-won world-weariness... Iggy Pop meets Jim Carroll and Charles Bukowski” –Kirkus, STARRED REVIEWBack 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 wher...

CHARLIE LEDUFF was a staff writer at the New York Times and a reporter at the Detroit News, and is now a television journalist for Detroit’s Fox 2 News. He contributed to a Pulitzer Prize–winning New York Times series and has received a Meyer Berger Award for distinguished writing about New York City. He is the author of US Guys and Wo...

other books by Charlie Leduff

Work And Other Sins: Life In New York City And Thereabouts
Work And Other Sins: Life In New York City And Thereabo...

Paperback|Jan 25 2005

$14.12 online$19.00list price(save 25%)
Format:HardcoverDimensions:272 pages, 9.25 × 6.25 × 1.25 inPublished:October 14, 2014Publisher:Penguin Press (HC)Language:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:1594205345

ISBN - 13:9781594205347

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Reviews

Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very insightful and sad I loved loved loved this book. Charlie LeDuff doesn't mince words, the corruption in this city was rampant and probably not unlike many cities today. Can't even imagine the deserted neighborhoods, shootings, ill equipped police and fire fighters - the sad part is this could happen to any metropolis anywhere, maybe even more so today with the economic turmoil in most countries and corruption on every level. Reading this book was timely as I had also just watched a news story of how many U.S. companies are moving their businesses to Mexico for mostly economic (money) reasons, Admired LeDuff for his courage and love of his hometown. Must have been very sad to see what it had become. Would read this book again and enjoy it just as much.
Date published: 2015-09-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Detroit Such a good read . it is so sad that such a great city is in such a sad shape and no one cares, to do something There are so many Wonderful people and places within Detroit.
Date published: 2015-06-05
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Detriot - An American Autopsy -First hand account by a native son who writes about the waste within Detroit. How the human condition deteriorated to the point that basic human concerns for others is abandoned. Good read.
Date published: 2180-08-20
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Detriot - An American Autopsy A terrific and compelling read by former New York Times staff writer Charlie LeDuff, who moves back to Detroit in 2010 and writes about the myriad characters who make up the underside of this once great American city. With his keen eye, LeDuff takes you into the centre of the action--cops, crooks, hustlers, hard scrabble folk--he writes with an intensity, honesty, and humour. He goes beyond the cliches and "blame game" and tells us real stories about real people, including himself. Reads like a cross between Elmore Leonard meets Malcolm Gladwell. Highly recommended
Date published: 2013-10-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Powerful and revealing Living across the river in Windsor, we assume we know Detroit. And to some degree, we do. Friends and family from outside the area have their preconceived notions of what Detroit is. We laugh, and dismiss them to some degree, choosing to educate them as to what a great city Detroit is. And it is. But Charlie LeDuff shows us the other side of Detroit. The areas we are not as familiar with - geographically, socially, politically and historically. A great read for anyone who can relate to and appreciate Detroit .. For both its faults and its "down but not out" attitude. Whether from its recent past or more historical point of view. A well written and insightful work - as it relates to both the city and the people who inhabit it. You won't be disappointed.
Date published: 2013-07-29
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Really liked the writing I enjoy books written by journalists, for example, Jon Krakauer. I like their economical, active writing. LeDuff is a journalist and his prose is short, snappy and memorable. I would describe his writing as social realism, comparable to Daniel Woodrell's fiction, but without Woodrell's poetry. I found his personal memoirs reminiscent of Andre Dubus III's in 'Townie'. I began this book the day before Detroit filed for bankruptcy and was not surprised by the announcement. LeDuff had already performed the autopsy on the corpse. I gave the book 4 stars. I knocked off a star because the story is so bleak. I stopped reading the book because it was so hopeless but I was drawn back because I could not resist LeDuff's storytelling. If you enjoyed "Into Thin Air" by Krakauer, "Winter's Bone" by Woodrell or "Townie" by Dubus, you will enjoy "Detroit: An American Autopsy" by LeDuff.
Date published: 2013-07-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Amazing Fantastic! I really enjoyed this view into what has happened to this city. I think it's a warning to the rest of us that this can happen if we let corruption run rampant.
Date published: 2013-06-10
Rated 4 out of 5 by from A great but sad read! Charlie Leduff takes on a nightmare tour of a once great metropolis that has fallen on hard times. Each chapter is insightful and concise as a different person that makes up the good and bad of Detroit is profiled. The Motor City is gutted and one hopes that there are a few embers of drive to revitalize this once great town. This book is a reminder that no city is immune from the disease that killed Detroit - a cure is needed for our urban centres. This book is a testament to great hardcore reporting from a fearless writer.
Date published: 2013-04-14

Extra Content

Read from the Book

Prologue I reached down the pant cuff with the eraser end of my pencil and poked it. Frozen solid. But definitely human.“Goddamn.”I took a deep breath through my cigarette. I didn’t want to use my nose. It was late January, the air scorching cold. The snow was falling sideways as it usually did in Detroit this time of year. The dead man was encased in at least four feet of ice at the bottom of a defunct elevator shaft in an abandoned building. But still, there was no telling what the stink might be like.I couldn’t make out his face. The only things protruding above the ice were the feet, dressed in some white sweat socks and a pair of black gym shoes. I could see the hem of his jacket below the surface. The rest of him tapered off into the void.In most cities, a death scene like this would be considered remarkable, mind-blowing, horrifying. But not here. Something had happened in Detroit while I was away.I had left the city two decades earlier to try to make a life for myself that didn’t involve a slow death working in a chemical factory or a liquor store. Any place but those places.But where? I wandered for years, working my way across Asia, Europe, the Arctic edge working as a cannery hand, a carpenter, a drifter. And then I settled into the most natural thing for a man with no real talents.Journalism.It required no expertise, no family connections and no social graces. Furthermore, it seemed to be the only job that paid you to travel, excluding a door-to-door Bible salesman. Nearly thirty years old, I went back to school to study the inverted pyramid of writing. I landed my first newspaper job with the Alaska Fisherman’s Journal, where I wrote dispatches in longhand on legal pads and mailed them back to headquarters in Seattle.So I went out into the Last Frontier with my notepad and a tent and wrote what I saw: stuff about struggling fishermen, a mountain woman who drank too much and dried her panties on a line stretched across the bow of her boat, Mexican laborers forced to live in the swamps, a prince who lived under a bridge, a gay piano man on a fancy cruise liner. People managing somehow. My kind of people. The job suited me.Working off that, I tried to land a real job but couldn’t find one. The Detroit Free Press didn’t want me. Not the San Francisco Chronicle. Not the Oakland Tribune. I was thinking about returning to the Alaskan fishing boats until a little Podunk paper called me with an offer of a summer internship— the New York Times.Luck counts too.I ended up working at the Gray Lady for a decade, sketching the lives of hustlers and working stiffs and firemen at Ground Zero. It was a good run. But wanderlust is like a pretty girl—you wake up one morning, find she’s grown old and decide that either you’re going to commit your life or you’re going to walk away. I walked away, and as it happens in life, I circled home, taking a job with the Detroit News. My colleagues in New York laughed. The paper was on death watch. And so was the city.It is important to note that, growing up in Detroit and its suburbs, I can honestly say it was never that good in the first place. People of older generations like to tell me about the swell old days of soda fountains and shopping stores and lazy Saturday night drives. But the fact is Detroit was dying forty years ago when the Japanese began to figure out how to make a better car. The whole country knew the city and the region was on the skids, and the whole country laughed at us. A bunch of lazy, uneducated blue-collar incompetents. The Rust Belt. The Rust Bowl. Forget about it. Florida was calling.No one cared much about Detroit until the Dow collapsed in 2008, the economy melted down and the chief executives of the Big Three went to Washington, D.C., to grovel. Suddenly the eyes of the nation turned back upon this postindustrial sarcophagus, where crime and corruption and mismanagement and mayhem played themselves out in the corridors of power and on the powerless streets. Detroit became epic, historic, symbolic, hip even. I began to get calls from reporters around the world wondering what the city was like, what was happening here. They wondered if the Rust Belt cancer had metastasized and was creeping toward Los Angeles and London and Barcelona. Was Detroit an outlier or an epicenter? Was Detroit a symbol of the greater decay? Is the Motor City the future of America? Are we living through a cycle or an epoch? Suddenly they weren’t laughing out there anymore.Journalists parachuted into town. The subjects in my Detroit News stories started appearing in Rolling Stone and the Wall Street Journal, on NPR and PBS and CNN, but under someone else’s byline. The reporters rarely, if ever, offered nuanced appraisals of the city and its place in the American landscape. They simply took a tour of the ruins, ripped off the local headlines, pronounced it awful here and left.And it is awful here, there is no other way to say it. But I believe that Detroit is America’s city. It was the vanguard of our way up, just as it is the vanguard of our way down. And one hopes the vanguard of our way up again. Detroit is Pax Americana. The birthplace of mass production, the automobile, the cement road, the refrigerator, frozen peas, high- paid blue-collar jobs, home ownership and credit on a mass scale. America’s way of life was built here.It’s where installment purchasing on a large scale was invented in 1919 by General Motors to sell their cars. It was called the Arsenal of Democracy in the 1940s, the place where the war machines were made to stop the march of fascism.So important was the Detroit way of doing things that its automobile executives in the fifties and sixties went to Washington and imprinted the military with their management style and structure. Robert McNamara was the father of the Ford Falcon and the architect of the Vietnam War. Charlie Wilson was the president of General Motors and Eisenhower’s man at the Pentagon, who famously said he thought that “what was good for our country was good for General Motors, and vice versa.”If what Wilson said is true, then so too must be its opposite.Today, the boomtown is bust. It is an eerie and angry place of deserted factories and homes and forgotten people. Detroit, which once led the nation in home ownership, is now a foreclosure capital. Its downtown is a museum of ghost skyscrapers. Trees and switchgrass and wild animals have come back to reclaim their rightful places. Coyotes are here. The pigeons have left in droves. A city the size of San Francisco and Manhattan could neatly fit into Detroit’s vacant lots, I am told.Once the nation’s richest big city, Detroit is now its poorest. It is the country’s illiteracy and dropout capital, where children must leave their books at school and bring toilet paper from home. It is the unemployment capital, where half the adult population does not work at a consistent job. There are firemen with no boots, cops with no cars, teachers with no pencils, city council members with telephones tapped by the FBI, and too many grandmothers with no tears left to give.But Detroit can no longer be ignored, because what happened here is happening out there. Neighborhoods from Phoenix to Los Angeles to Miami are blighted with empty houses and people with idle hands. Americans are swimming in debt, and the prospects of servicing the debt grow slimmer by the day as good- paying jobs continue to evaporate or relocate to foreign lands. Economists talk about the inevitable turnaround. But standing here in Michigan, it seems to me that the fundamentals are no longer there to make the good life.Go ahead and laugh at Detroit. Because you are laughing at yourself.In cities and towns across the country, whole factories are auctioned off. Men with trucks haul away tool-and-die machines, aluminum siding, hoists, drinking fountains. It is the ripping out of the country’s mechanical heart right before our eyes.A newly hired autoworker will earn $14 an hour. This, adjusted for inflation, is three cents less than what Henry Ford was paying in 1914 when he announced the $5 day. And, of course, Ford isn’t hiring.Come to Detroit. Drive the empty, shattered boulevards, and the decrepitude of the place all rolls out in a numb, continuous fact. After enough hours staring into it, it starts to appear normal. Average. Everyday.And then you come across something like a man frozen in ice and the skeleton of the anatomy of the place reveals itself to you.The neck bone is connected to the billionaire who owns the crumbling building where the man died. The rib bones are connected to the countless minions shuffling through the frostbitten streets burning fires in empty warehouses to stay warm— and get high. The hip bone is connected to a demoralized police force who couldn’t give a shit about digging a dead mope out of an elevator shaft. The thigh bone is connected to the white suburbanites who turn their heads away from the calamity of Detroit, carrying on as though the human suffering were somebody else’s problem. And the foot bones—well, they’re sticking out of a block of dirty frozen water, belonging to an unknown man nobody seemed to give a rip about.We are not alone on this account. Across the country, the dead go unclaimed in the municipal morgues because people are too poor to bury their loved ones: Los Angeles, New York, Chicago. It’s the same. Grandpa is on layaway while his family tries to scratch together a box and a plot.This is not a book about geopolitics or macroeconomics or global finance. And it is not a feel- good story with a happy ending. It is a book of reportage. A memoir of a reporter returning home— only he cannot find the home he once knew. This is a book about living people getting on with the business of surviving in a place that has little use for anyone anymore except those left here. It is about waking up one morning and being told you are obsolete and not wanting to believe it but knowing it’s true. It is a book about a rough town and a tough people during arguably some of the most historic and cataclysmic years in the American experience. It is a book about family and cops and criminals and factory workers. It is about corrupt politicians and a collapsing newspaper. It is about angry people fighting and crying and snatching hold of one another trying to stay alive.It is about the future of America and our desperate efforts to save ourselves from it.At the end of the day, the Detroiter may be the most important American there is because no one knows better than he that we’re all standing at the edge of the shaft.

Editorial Reviews

"LeDuff returns, by the books end, to the bar where his sister was last seen, only to find it unrecognizable. A black man outside explains the changes. 'they trying to put something nice up' in this hellhole he says, speaking of the bar specifically, though his words spread across the city and pay tribute, in equal measure, to its dreamers, its pessimists and to those, resigned and wrung out, who love it despite all. 'Can't say it's working. But what you gonna do? You ain’t gonna be reincarnated, so you got to do the best you can with the moment you got. Do the best you can and try to be good.' LeDuff has done his best, and his book is better than good."—Paul Clemens, New York Times Book Review"One cannot read Mr. LeDuff's amalgam of memoir and reportage and not be shaken by the cold eye he casts on hard truths... A little gonzo, a little gumshoe, some gawker, some good-Samaritan—it is hard to ignore reporting like Mr. LeDuff's."—The Wall Street Journal“Pultizer-Prize-winning journalist LeDuff (Work and Other Sins) delivers an edgy portrait of the decline, destruction, and possible redemption of his hometown…LeDuff writes with honesty and compassion about a city that’s destroying itself–and breaking his heart.”—Publishers Weekly, STARRED REVIEW“A book full of both literary grace and hard-won world-weariness…. Iggy Pop meets Jim Carroll and Charles Bukowski”—Kirkus “This is our pick for a sleeper nonfiction hit next year. Charlie LeDuff is a remarkable journalist, and this book is filled with incredible writing as he witnesses his home city crumble through neglect and corruption.”—Huffington Post“What to do when you’re a reporter and your native city is rotting away? If you’re LeDuff, you leave The New York Times and head into the wreckage to ride with firemen, hang with the corrupt pols, and retrace your own family’s sad steps through drugs. Others have written well about the city, but none with the visceral anger, the hair-tearing frustration, and the hungry humanity of LeDuff.”—NewsweekAdvance Praise for Detroit:"You wouldn't think a book about the stinking decay of the American dream could be this engaging, this irreverent, this laugh-at-loud funny. But not everyone can write like Charlie LeDuff. I'm tempted to say he's the writer for our desperate times the way Steinbeck and Orwell were for other people's desperate times, except he's such an original he's like no one but himself."—Alexandra Fuller, author of Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness and Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight"Charlie LeDuff is a drunkard, a blowhard, a Fox News Reporter -- and a brilliant writer. Detroit is full of righteous anger and heartbreaking details. It's also funny as hell. Hunter S. Thompson would've loved every page of this book."—Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation and Reefer Madness"In Detroit: An American Autopsy, Charlie LeDuff brings alive the reality of our beloved city. The city where I was shot at eight times during my twenty six year police career. Yet, Detroit has survived in spite of corruption, political ineptness, poor education, and decades of unemployment. Detroit: An American Autopsy is a must read for all of America."—Detroit Police Chief Ike McKinnon (retired); Associate Professor of Education, University of Detroit Mercy