Memoir Madness: Made in Detroit
11 June 2008
For a long time, I wasn't up to reading memoirs. They're almost like fiction for me in that there's so many of them available, I'm bound not to like the majority of them. But when I find a good one? Ooh, baby.
Okay, many people would argue memoirs are like fiction in a good many other ways, but I've never had the energy to join that particular fight. You only have to try and recall any conversation you had yesterday to be able to put two and two together and figure that memoirs (many of which include events which took place years, not days, ago) are largely creations. Doesn't mean they're not true. They are one person's true viewpoint. And I can happily deal with that.
That's a topic for a different day. What we have in captivity today is that rarest of wild animals: the memoir I loved and couldn't stop reading. Paul Clemens's Made in Detroit: A South of 8 Mile Memoir should be required reading in any college class with the word "diversity" in the title. Clemens grew up in Detroit and makes it a point throughout the book to stress that he and his family lived in Detroit proper, not the suburbs. In other words, Clemens lived the life described in the book's blurb: "white in a predominately black city, Catholic in an area where churches were closing at a rapid rate, and blue-collar in a steadily declining Rust Belt."
It's awesome. I didn't really know much about Detroit before starting this book, although I'd started to get an inkling about the city from reading Caught in the Middle: America's Heartland in the Age of Globalism. (I'd also seen pictures showing numerous abandoned buildings in the city's downtown on another website, which was informative.) But in addition to all that, this is also a fantastic story of growing up boy, growing up Catholic, growing up in a largely segregated city, growing up in what sounds like a beautifully no-nonense family, growing up in college, growing up through marriage and family, and living one's life fully while also trying to give it some thought. There's only one small chapter where it drags a bit, but the whole makes up for it so beautifully I'm not going to split hairs.
I also love that Clemens doesn't pull any punches. He tells you how the city was for him then, and how he thinks about it now. He doesn't waste any time, even in his very first chapter, dropping you right into the middle of the action (his mother wakes him up to follow and retrieve his father, who himself was rudely awakened by someone shooting out the windows in their truck; he chased after them in one car, and Paul chased after his father in another car) and finishing up with a perfectly detailed and surreal thought about "a city where, when your car was stolen and a black Detroit cop happened, several hours later, to arrive on the scene, the quizzical look you were given said, 'What are you doing here?'--as if, at seventeen, I were a doddering British farmer, stubbornly tending land in a country I insisted on calling Rhodesia." (p. 7.)
Not to be too demanding, but I want all of you to read it immediately and then come back so we can talk about it; it's got a lot of things to say about race and society that I'd desperately love to talk over with someone.