Angels of Detroit (2016)
Christopher Hebert (1973)
News reports on Detroit’s decades-long decline and its citizens on-going struggle to climb up out of the resulting despair tend to include two dramatic facts about the city, stark realities that author Christopher Hebert works into the opening pages of his engaging novel Angels of Detroit:
a city of one hundred forty square miles, a third of it abandoned, the emptiness combined larger than the entire city of San Francisco. Boston. Manhattan. Almost two million inhabitants at the city’s height. Two-thirds of them now departed.” (9)These facts, aside from highlighting the depth of the city’s fall, also reveal a challenge facing its recovery: Detroit is not simply a city down on its luck, it’s a city that’s been abandoned and left to whither. How can one hope to change the city's direction, and then construct a successful recovery, when so little remains in terms of people and industry to provide the necessary impetus and support?
Precisely this dilemma bedevils many of the characters in Angels of Detroit. Though not wanting to simply give in to the city’s desolate reality, they struggle to find effective ways to change its future for the better. In the face of the decay that surrounds them, each seeks ways, within their limited individual means, to change those surroundings: a young revolutionary doggedly pushes a small group of friends into resistance against what she sees as destructive corporate behavior; an old woman won’t take no for an answer as she co-ops people into helping her create an urban garden on a vacant lot; an executive of a corporate behemoth tries to prevent her company from giving up on Detroit even as she herself no longer recognizes the streets of her youth.
Hebert assembles a colorful mélange of characters in the novel, all of whom --- with the not surprising exception of the corporate executive --- live in neighborhoods where many of the homes are empty and decaying, if still standing at all. These are Detroiters largely invisible in news reports about the city, reports that often seem to describe a wasteland filled with a featureless mass of impoverished, listless unemployed, preyed on by violent, incorrigible criminals. Hebert, by contrast, gives faces to the lives of those just trying to survive in these collapsing parts of the city; he has created compelling characters with conflicting hopes and fears, dreams and delusions.
The novel is constructed around a handful of parallel plot lines, each with its own set of characters, and it can be difficult initially to keep all those characters straight, especially as we shift quickly from one context to the next. Overall the story has a bit of the feel of a handful of vignettes about life in the city that Hebert has interlaced to form a book; and though characters from the various plot lines begin crossing paths already early in the story, those meetings are often tangential, with the contact sometimes only by sight, from a distance. It comes then as no surprise when Hebert opens the Acknowledgements following the story by noting that he “wrote this book over the course of a number of years.” (421)
Hebert does not shy away from disturbing reality in his descriptions of the decay and detritus that fill vast tracts of once --- not so very many decades ago --- comfortable, working and middle class neighborhoods. And he makes clear the damaging impact of such conditions on those who remain, those who somehow find it difficult, however, to give up on the city completely. The beauty of “Angels of Detroit” lies in Hebert’s ability to give his characters complex personalities and motivations, to make us realize that behind the simplified image of Detroit we see from across the city borders in the suburbs or the larger world beyond, live real people, making the best of the city they call home --- hoping, struggling for a better future.
Other reviews / information:
In Detroit: An American Autopsy, reporter Charlie LeDuff provides a personal account of life in modern day Detroit, from the challenged neighborhoods to the challenging politics; my review of his book here.
Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf