Benjamin Markovits – You don’t have to live like this

The way this book conveys big ideas about race and urban renewal through an unreliable but captivating first person account makes this remarkable and in some ways unlike anything I’ve ever read.

The book cover includes comparisons to The Wire – in fact a relatively accurate description, both in the way the city of Detroit is itself more a character than a setting, and in the way it spans the big social issues while giving an on-the-ground story.

It tells the story of Marney, a Yale graduate in his early 30s, working at Aberystwyth University, who goes back home to the US on for the vacation, meets with his old friend and uber-successful Robert James and ends up moving to Detroit in a new socially liberal scheme Robert is organising to buy up chunks of the real estate and bring in new largely middle class pioneers who can bring jobs, money and community back to Detroit.

Marney manages to make close friends among both the incomers and the mostly African Americans living in Detroit already, particularly the hard and unpredictable Nolan and a teacher, Gloria, with whom he becomes romantically involved, as well Astrid, Tony and others who have come for the cheap property and the idea of creating a new way of life.

In the end, though, the experiment in urban renewal breaks down after a black kid is hit by an incomer’s car,  and then an incomer’s child is taken, it seems, by Nolan. Marney is stuck in the middle, he ending up in court and the neighbourhood in riots.

Beside the balance of the political and personal there are some remarkable elements to the novel.

Marney is an excellent character: subtly flawed in his account of everything that is going because of his indecision, his inability to confront or perhaps even see the reality, and his unwillingness to look beyond himself.

There is a cool simplicity to the prose. It’s in the first person and on the first page Marney explains that he’s already had ‘then this happened, then this happened’ approach to story-telling. It is a device that Markovits uses effectively to allow the story to unfold gradually and to allow Marney to say what he thinks is happening without reflecting more deeply on it.

There is an enormous complexity to the characters in the book. There are lots of people, all with back stories, but despite the number and the scale of the issues dealt with in the book, there are very few stereotypes: the people are multi-layered and realistic.

Robert James is an example of this. A dotcom entrepreneur now wanting to do some good, he thinks bringing in new people and fixing up the Detroit neighbourhoods can change the nature and fortunes of the city. His motivations? Some kind of wild megalomania? Political ambitions? The desire to do good? Probably all of these and more. Throughout the book there is moral ambiguity – events that make you wonder whether something is right or wrong. We glimpse all this, but often from afar, because we are only seeing through the eyes of the self-absorbed Marney – and it is this, the complexity and ambiguity, that makes this such a quality novel.

 

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