Detroit as Literary Place

I have been thinking lately about place, how it figures into a novel. Certain writers like Annie Proulx can make a landscape come so alive that reading passages is like looking at postcard images. But Proulx and writers like E.L. Doctorow are doing more than just describing the tundra or naming the fauna of a place. A fully realized setting affects characterization and plot; place becomes the way the characters think and act. I think of the dinner scene in Doctorow's short story, "A House on the Plains" where the son describes his mother's witless farmhand boyfriend. The boyfriend says "This is good eats" at the dinner table and the immigrant servant who speaks little English snorts, knowing that even she is better than this guy. In the space of one paragraph Doctorow gives the reader ample clues of the time period and the stations of each character.

I realize as I write this that I’ve been referring to and thinking about historical fiction and maybe that’s because the writers of historical fiction take pains to know their settings. After all, the veracity of their story stands or falls on the details of the period. But deep knowledge of place can be just as important in contemporary stories. I can’t imagine reading a story that takes place in an international city like Los Angeles, Paris, Rome, Mumbai, Hong Kong where the writer uses the city as mere background, referring a few times to a famous building or to the weather. I want the geography and history (there’s that word again) of a place to color the characters’ speech, what they choose to eat, what they aspire to be.

Which brings me to Detroit. Detroit provides a jackpot for fiction writers when it comes to setting. Forget the cartoonish and one-dimensional depictions that you’ve read in the news. We all know that Detroit has crime, mayors who’ve betrayed the public trust, thousands of home foreclosures, thousands of people unemployed, etc. etc. Detroit has recently been dealt a harsh hand. But the richness of Detroit is in this battered public image, the way that remarks like “Well, you know they’re from Detroit” or "Why can't the people of Detroit..." creeps into the soul of Detroiters alongside their pride of growing up in the birthplace of Motown, the auto industry, techno music, and a proud home-owning working class. It’s this constant rub of present misery and glorious past that provides great tension for a writer. It’s why this website of Detroit’s ruins is so popular. You look at those crumbling Victorian era homes and wonder, What gives? Detroit in many ways is emblematic of America: great in the 20th century but struggling in the 21st.

There’s also the history of Native Americans and the French in Detroit. There are French names all over Detroit, like the avenue named Gratiot, that we Detroiters mangle and pronounce as Grash-It. There’s the Detroit River, where Deletha Word died, and Windsor, Canada which is visible on the opposite side of the river. There’s the Majestic Theater on Woodward Avenue which was the site of Houdini’s last performance before he died. There are all of the town's immigrant stories—-the Polish who settled in Hamtramck, those who established Greektown, the Armenians, the large middle eastern population, the southern blacks who'd moved north. Despite the existence of many ethnic groups there’s a parochial feel to Detroit which makes it ripe for characters that William Faulkner or Flannery O’Connor would have loved.

There’s George Clinton and Kid Rock. There’s Tyree Guyton making art out of abandoned ruins and trash.

Detroit may be a joke in the popular media but a careful examination of the city’s culture reveals a complexity that can only be given proper dignity in literature. Ask Jeffrey Eugenides who has written two beautiful novels set in Detroit. There are a number of writers--Eugenides, Terry Wolverton, Philip Levine, Toi Derricotte—who have mined Detroit as place. They, too, were pulled by this rugged yet elegant city and what its landscape inspires in the imagination.

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