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Michigan Bookmark: "Angels of Detroit" reads like a narrow escape from city’s troubles

Sep 19, 2016

Christopher Hebert's Angels of Detroit has a rich cast of feckless and out of their time hippies who make their way to Detroit for no good purpose. Hebert is a generous and perceptive writer who gives his characters a long hard look, but his anarchists have a difficult time explaining why blowing up Detroit will lead to something better.

When the question is asked, "Is this the right thing?" McGee, the default ringleader says, "Maybe it feels like the only thing left."

The activists are black, white, and Latino. They have run away from poverty, country clubs, and parents who tried to take over their lives. They meet in a derelict bookstore, the books covered with dust or non-existent, as if books and civilization with them had disappeared.

Their skills are as unformed as their philosophy. When a drummer is needed for their band, April, who has never held a drumstick, is pushed onto the stage. The group is eager for publicity, frantically calling radio stations and newspapers, desperate for validation. With its cold dispassionate debate over targets of destruction, the novel reads like an extension of The Secret Agent, Joseph Conrad's tale of moral nihilism.

This is the Detroit of empty fields, burned-out homes, and abandoned factories. It's the city that has attracted photographers from as far away as France to find beauty in Detroit's death throes. Presiding over the remnant of the city is Clementine, a ten-year-old black girl, so watchful of her city, she worries about what could happen when she has to be in school. There is a slim hope in the elderly Constance who tends a garden that might or might not grow to restore the city.

Abandoned stores are bombed. "Cleansing" fires are set. Plans are made to blow up a company dealing with the obligatory list of business sins:  environmental abuses, outsourcing, and lethal military drones.  Ironically, the business is headed by a woman who had once blown up a school, and who now feels her act was purposeless.

In his acknowledgment, Hebert explains his novel was written over many years, and the landscape of the city has changed. The novel, he says, is not about "one fixed moment in time." It is "a work of the imagination," but Hebert, a graduate of the University of Michigan, knows the city too well. Detroit is described in such knowing detail, it is difficult not to recognize the city and to think of it both as it was, and as it is becoming. Hebert describes Belle Isle's famous Scott fountain barricaded, the water shut off; now the fountain is pristine, the water spilling out, a symbol of regeneration.

The anarchists are dismissive, scorning the suggestion that "artists were going to save it by filling empty warehouses with ceramics and easels. Or urban hipsters would come spawning microbreweries and coffee shops." And that is exactly what is now happening. 

Angels of Detroit should be read for its insights, the perceptive back stories of its characters, the graphic way it points out the hard work still to do. For Detroiters who suffered through these last years, the book reads like a narrow escape.

Gloria Whelan is the author of several novels for young readers, including Homeless Birds, winner of the National Book Award, and Once on This Island, winner of the Great Lakes Book Award. She lives in a cabin on Oxbow Lake in the woods of northern Michigan.

Michigan Bookmark is a series that features Michigan authors reviewing Michigan books. Find more reviews here.

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