Sunday Burgs book review
Reviewed by Allison Long of Newport.
Scott Lasser wants you to say nice things about Detroit and lays out his case in the novel by the same name. For this effort, readers are given an easily digestible novel.
David Halpert returns to his hometown of Detroit to help his father care for his ailing mother. While he’s there, he finds out that his high school sweetheart, Natalie, and her brother, Dirk, have been killed.
Readers quickly learn that David is divorced, has lost a son and is at a crossroads in life. His dad urges him to move back home, and David does, taking a job at a Detroit law firm. We spend some time getting to know his parents, which seems a little unfair, because once David moves back to Detroit; his parents rarely make an appearance.
Meanwhile, Natalie’s sister Carolyn also arrives back in Detroit to stay with her mother after the double murder. When David calls to express his condolences, he and Carolyn agree to meet for drinks and find themselves attracted to each other. So begins their affair. Ultimately, Carolyn leaves her husband and uproots her son to Detroit with alarming speed.
But it’s really when Lasser introduces a second storyline into the action that things get weird. Carolyn and Natalie’s half-brother, Dirk, was a product of their mother’s first marriage, which was an interracial union. The Booker family took in Dirk and raised him on the other side of Detroit. When Dirk died, he leaves a legacy for his nephew, Marlon, a young gangster.
David is the lawyer assigned to settle Dirk’s estate. When Dirk’s widow expresses her desire to sell the house to be closer to her daughter, David buys the place. As atonement for his lost son, David decides to give Marlon a chance by letting him stay in his new home. After all, Marlon is ready to give up his life of crime and wants to come clean. Unfortunately, we learn that it may not be possible.
The best part of “Detroit” is that the story comes in layers and each layer complements the other so well. Lasser can be heavy handed at times, but manages to keep himself in check, straddling the fine line of idealism and reality. The only exception comes near the end in a scene with a car salesman. The dialogue comes off as a moral message about American cars and patriotism.
But American cars are not the point. Carolyn, David and Marlon are the point. Lasser uses his three protagonists to talk about decline, racial divides and starting over. They are imperfect and maybe not very nice overall, but they are trying to begin again and do things better. Though this hope is tempered by the fact that Carolyn and David are prodigal children and Marlon has to leave for a chance at survival, the hope is still there.
“Detroit” also dives into the racial divisions of its title city without actually confronting them. Lasser is direct in parts of the novel, such as when Carolyn gets pulled over in a “non-white” part of town, or when David’s new neighbor bluntly asks David if he knows he’s moving into a “black” neighborhood. These episodes establish the tension of a city, but end in a touching scene with David and his neighbor going to a baseball game together, which seems a bit overplayed. Not long after, David goes to buy his American car.
The neat tying of loose ends may not always happen in real life, but in “Detroit” it gives a certain satisfaction. From David’s first impassioned defense of his move home to Marlon’s flight to Carolyn’s meeting David’s father for the first time, you’re rooting for these characters and, like it or not, you’re rooting for Detroit.
To conclude: Say nice things about Detroit…or else.
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