AUGUST 28, 2014
IN 1968, IN DETROIT, the Tigers won the World Series Bill Morris’s new novel Motor City Burning, takes place during that year’s baseball season, when the sport was a rare uniting factor in the racially and socioeconomically divided city, and one of its few sources of hope. In the book’s first chapter, disillusioned Alabama transplant and SNCC dropout Willie Bledsoe attends a game at Tiger Stadium in the wake of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s murder, and is buoyed by the crowds’ “anonymity, their electricity, their animal warmth.” At the game, the young black man befriends two older, dapper, successful African-American men from Detroit — a foreman and a lawyer — and finds himself included, contextualized, at home for the first time.
Tigers games become a frequent backdrop to the formation of relationships in Morris’s novel. A black and a white cop cement their new partnership over cans of Stroh’s as they watch their team on a tiny bar TV screen. Octavia Jackson, the woman Bledsoe’s been seeing, buys and wears a Tigers cap in a display of affection and pride. Policemen grumble over scores with the suspects they’re interrogating. Alone in his Pontiac — this is Detroit, after all — white Officer Frank Doyle finds himself “reading the tea leaves of the Tigers’ box score” on a stakeout, hoping for answers the newsprint can’t provide.
Bledsoe and Doyle are the central figures of the novel, which shifts chapter by chapter between their perspectives, always in close third person, as if each man is being followed. Both are lookers, sharply dressed and with an eye for women, keenly aware of their skin color and what it denies them, or allows. They become looking-glass images of each other, warped by an imbalance of power and their respective desires for narrative closure and control. Motor City Burning is a book about telling stories, reading signs, but it is also about watching and being watched, and the novel sometimes strikes the tone of a very colorful police report. In the aftermath of the bloody, searing Detroit race riots, both protagonists are trying to resolve the events of July 26, 1967, when a white woman, Helen Hull, was shot by a sniper through a window in the hallway of her apartment building. The gun that killed her was smuggled north in the trunk of Bledsoe’s car, and he’s haunted by having abetted the last unsolved murder from the riots, and he’s so afraid that he’ll take the heat for it that he can’t get any work done on his memoir about the Freedom Rides. Doyle can’t forget Henry Hull’s sad, obsessive compilation of evidence regarding his wife’s death, or the indelible image of Helen sprawled on the carpet, open-mouthed, with a bullet hole through her chest.
Morris delivers a sharp critique of the contemporary American post-racial narrative by depicting a smart young man like Bledsoe, who dropped out of Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute to join the Freedom Riders, then left the Civil Rights movement after the 1964 Democratic convention, disappointed in Dr. King’s leadership. Bledsoe remembers King not as a hero but as “just another garden-variety demagogue” who “pursued martyrdom” instead of institutional change. This heretical idea becomes more important in light of Detroit’s recent high profile in the news. Never mind declaring bankruptcy, at the end of July city residents began marching to protest the city’s attempts to shut off water access to thousands of customers unable to pay their bills. As of the 2010 census, over 80 percent of Detroit’s population was black or African American, and roughly 40 percent lived below the poverty line.
Not to say that Detroit’s troubles, contemporary or historical, are Dr. King’s fault. Even Bledsoe readily acknowledges that King was a myth as much as a man — “de Lawd,” a religion unto himself — and that myths are terribly seductive. If Bledsoe is right, “[the South] wasn’t all that different from Detroit, but white northerners never believed this.” He’s referring specifically to the wealthy wife of a white man, Chick Murphy, who’s a member of the country club where Bledsoe works. Murphy is the kind of guy who tries to prove he’s not racist by being intensely, uncomfortably chummy with the black waiters and busboys. His wife, Blythe, wants to sleep with Bledsoe, and, protected by wealth, whiteness, and alcoholism from the realities of her own city, she’s fascinated by his stories of racist brutality in Alabama and Mississippi. Blythe Murphy knows little about flirting and less about the South, preferring to think that things in Detroit are better, and that she’s better than other whites for seeming to care about what Bledsoe has to say.
This prompts Bledsoe to recall the words of an old black man from North Carolina whom he met soon after moving to Detroit: “Down South, everybody knows where the lines are drawn. Up here in the North you got to find out as you go along.” One of the most difficult lines that Morris walks, as a white writer, is writing half his book from the perspective of a black man, often using slang and American Black English. Morris gains some of his legitimacy by virtue of being a native Detroiter. He keeps it by virtue of his racial self-awareness, and by writing even minor characters with complexity and humanity that suggests they have lives off the page. Using both Bledsoe’s and Doyle’s perspectives, Morris offers a wide-ranging critique of the hierarchies of late-1960s Detroit that remains relevant. Walking past buildings burnt in the riots, Doyle notes that “very few of them had been torn down yet, as though someone — insurance companies? the white power structure? — had left them standing as perverse monuments to the madness that had swept this city.” Of course, Doyle is also a man of his bigoted time, who sneers internally at “trannies” outside the Desert Inn, and I, a white reader, am not the best person to ascertain the veracity of Morris’s black syntax. But it felt real and beautifully complicated to me.
Another beautiful complication is the novel’s monumental stature. I’ve already touched on Morris’s repeated references to history, memory, and myths. In the first chapter of Motor City Burning, Bledsoe marvels that Helen Hull’s murder is “nearly a year old” and then calls the riots “ancient history.” Does this make Morris’s book historical fiction? It is fiction, and it is set in the recent past — but it’s a history that Morris, and probably many readers, has lived through, and one that is still shaping contemporary American life and conversations. The point Morris makes, layer by layer over the course of the novel, is that all histories — all memories — are fictions, and we are cobbled together from them. After scrolling through a reel of microfilm, doing research for his memoir, Bledsoe recognizes in himself a disillusionment that springs from the “venality of being human, trapped inside a sack of skin that happened to be black, trapped inside history.”
Meanwhile, Doyle’s sense of mythology is rooted in the city of Detroit itself. In addition to being a sharp, workaholic homicide cop, Doyle is an avid gardener and talented cook who derives solace from Diego Rivera’s populist murals, and he knows his history well enough to recognize its facades: “Dexter, like Twelfth, carried a load of memories for Doyle, and as he drove slowly up the street he pointed out the numerous shops with Jewish names on the signs […]. It was an illusion, he told her, because when the Jewish merchants gave up, as often as not they sold their businesses to Arabs.” Then Doyle roots the Arabs in historical context. The Chaldeans, he explains, are Iraqi Catholics under whose code “a slight to any man is a slight to his entire family.” Not a bad metaphor for the way American racial and economic history makes itself apparent in the lives of the individuals who populate Morris’s novel, for the way those individuals’ actions all read like symbols. When Doyle learns that “one of the worst racists on the force was now spending his working days trapped in a radio car” with a senior officer who’s black, it feels fated, “perfect.” In a place and time so fraught, so coded, everything means more than itself.
Morris does an especially lovely job of elevating the ordinary. Men without much money or glamour to their lives smoke and drink, ride the bus, and sit home alone in the evenings; he makes it beautiful, transmuting daily existence into something gleaming and sensual the way a car’s dull steel frame shines with chrome. Morris notices a neighborhood with “glass glittering on the sidewalks, houses in need of paint, black bruises on the street where cars had leaked their vital fluids.” Placing a call to Alabama, Doyle imagines “Rod Steiger sitting at a desk chain-smoking cigarettes and sending gouts of tobacco juice into a Maxwell House coffee can while the blades of a ceiling fan chopped the foggy air.” One man’s face “sagged like a melting candle.”
Morris’s atmospheric fascination with working-class American masculinity and industry also roots his book in the detective novel tradition. That’s what the book is, at its heart — though the mystery is not only who killed Helen Hull, but also whether justice is possible, and whether American racial history is a bearable burden. Unfortunately, along with the chewy plot and snappy dialogue that are hallmarks of pulp come some of its more tired traditions. Occasionally, Morris’s lively prose falters or becomes trite or heavy-handed — “It felt like the beginning of a rebirth,” or, “Doyle wanted to make that smile go away” — but such slip-ups are rare and minor.
Far more troubling is Morris’s limited depiction of women. There are only three female characters in Motor City Burning, aside from Helen Hull, who is dead, and while they’re interesting — especially Cecelia Cronin, the independent art history grad student and bartender who takes care of Doyle when he’s too drunk, fucks him joyfully, and is unapologetically emotional — they only ever interact with men. Furthermore, all three are essentially sexual objects who play into types: the loose, sexy artist; the sweet and simple hot-as-hell hometown girl; and the embarrassing, needy, voluptuous drunk. But maybe that was the patriarchal reality of the time Morris depicts, especially from the perspective of his single, male protagonists. Maybe those are character types women take on so as to solidify something for themselves in a world that offers them little space. Regardless, Morris demonstrates how tradition and tired stories entrap us by providing convenient but constraining roles — for men as well as women, for blacks and whites, for a city like Detroit that once thrived on the capitalist process and then was crushed by it. The post-racial society is just an undesirable myth, but its insubstantiality becomes more apparent when refracted through the starker divisions of mid-century America. By undermining these easy ideas about identity and inheritance, Morris’s historical fiction — call it a report on American hopes and failures — asks us to look directly in the warped glass of time at our faces, and to enumerate the scars.