Aug 24 2012

Say Nice Things About Detroit by Scott Lasser

Michael Herbert Miller

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To most of the country, Detroit is characterized more by the people who left than by those who stayed. Detroiters like to joke that everyone returns eventually, but over the past fifty years, the city's population has lost more than a million people, leaving it at a third of what it was at its peak at the end of the 1950s. Detroit is in a constant state of physical flux: At any point, that house on the corner might become a victim of the arson that is as ubiquitous in the city as Ford sedans and GM trucks. A local who returns after spending even a few months away is left feeling like a foreigner, if they come back at all. The continued segregation of the city, and its tense racial politics, are evident in the ongoing "white flight" of the middle class.

But Scott Lasser's fourth novel, Say Nice Things About Detroit, begins with a reverse exodus. David Halpert, an estate attorney, has fled Denver, leaving behind a failed marriage, and memories of his dead son that are more difficult to turn his back on. The day David returns to Detroit for the first time in years, he notices on the cover of the Detroit Free Press that his high school girlfriend Natalie and her half-brother Dirk, a half-black former FBI agent, have been murdered by "a dozen shots fired at close range." For David, a character about as developed as an empty city lot, this elicits no further reaction than, "It was hard to think of them as dead." It is not long before David, an estate lawyer who finds work settling Dirk's affairs, impregnates Natalie's sister (who is married and only in town for the funeral) and decides to buy Dirk's old house in the Palmer Woods district of the city.

He liked the home, the feel of it, the stained wood that gave off an air of permanence. Still, the house was inside the city limits of Detroit, and thus in a black neighborhood. This would put off most white people; it was one of the reasons the house was so cheap, which for him made it all the better. He liked the idea of doing what others wouldn't.

This sets in motion Lasser's crude take on Detroit's complicated racial problems. In Palmer Woods, where people freely yell "cracker" at David, he lives next door to a former judge referred to as simply "Wilson." This Wilson eerily resembles the sage-like neighbor from the Michigan-based sitcom Home Improvement, except, as Lasser keeps reminding us, his Wilson is black. In fact, everything in this novel is either white or black, and, with the exception of Wilson, Lasser treats these categories as almost perfectly synonymous with "good" and "bad."

Through buying Dirk's house, David meets Marlon, Dirk's adoptive son and a small time drug-dealer who says he wants to go straight. Though David is unaware of the specifics of Marlon's profession, he invites Marlon to live with him anyway, excited by the prospect of being a wealthy white man able to swoop in and save a poor black kid. "There is this one other life I can change," he says, "so I will."

Though Dirk is frustratingly perturbed by his skin color ("black people got to deal with white people," he tells Natalie in a flashback), he's presented as a hero because he is middle-class and works an honest job in law enforcement. Marlon and his friends are a different story. They apocopate their words, carry 9mm pistols, and embody a 6 o'clock news concept of "troubled black youth." So it doesn't come as a surprise that the dealers Marlon runs with are implicated in Dirk and Natalie's deaths. To resolve his own—and I can't help but also think Lasser's—white guilt, David shows Marlon how to open a bank account, and teaches him other practical skills that are indelibly coded as "white." In the end, Marlon is redeemed by a "legitimate job" as a bartender, and David trades in his German sports car for an American-made SUV, opting to stay in Detroit because, in the final judgment of Wilson, "he belongs here."

The problem at the heart of Lasser's book is its implicit suggestion that Detroit is redeemed because the white and fairly wealthy David has chosen to let the city give him a fresh start. He feels, for instance, a "sense of progress" when he attends a Tigers game with Wilson, not only because the Tigers are playing in a flashy corporate-sponsored new ballpark, but also because, for David, it is "the first time in his life he was out socially with a black person."

For a book that is so self-consciously trying to represent the supposedly real issues of a specific place at a specific moment in time, Lasser treats the actual history of Detroit as, at best, parenthetical. By my count, there are only two direct references to what was actually happening in the city in 2006: one is that the Tigers won the American League pennant and the other—which is literally set off in parenthesis—is that "the Democrats took control of Congress." For what it's worth, here are a few of the things that were going on in the city in 2006: Kwame Kilpatrick began his doomed second term as Mayor (he would eventually resign his post early due to perjury charges); The Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit opened on Woodward Avenue; a bad batch of heroin that was mixed with the synthetic painkiller fentanyl was killing roughly a dozen drug users each month; Detroit hosted the Super Bowl; and the city tore down a number of abandoned buildings, including the former downtown home of Motown Records. Instead of acknowledging this history—or depicting Detroit's singularly beautiful ugliness, its vacated skyscrapers and wide empty streets—Lasser offers flat descriptions that could be set in any major American city. Say Nice Things About Detroit presents a nice enough imperative in its title, but I can't say the book gives readers much to work with.

Michael Herbert Miller is an arts reporter at the New York Observer.

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