June 22, 2017

Fire inside the gates

House fire

New Yorker journalist George Packer’s new book The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America is the latest to explore the industrial collapse. Journalist Gordon Young has written a book about his hometown of Flint, Teardown: A Memoir of a Vanishing City. Packer wrote Assassin’s Gate about America’s war in Iraq and this one’s getting excellent reviews as well. The New York Times calls it a masterpiece. The most amazing fact about Flint is that the number of elementary students in Flint schools has declined nearly eighty percent since the late 1960s and early 70s. I was one of the elementary students from that era, as was Gordon Young. My two elementary schools and junior high have closed. The high school, at one time among the largest in the state, will close next year.

Charlie LeDuff’s Detroit: An American Autopsy is the one published in the last couple of years that I like the most, although no one will ever consider the book a masterpiece. His book is about fire, the epidemic of fires in Detroit raging through the abandonment. It began with fire and will end in fire.

My head felt like it was in an oven when I got too close to this fire burning through the abandonment on Flint’s north side, near the truly vanished Buick City Complex. I saw the flames and black smoke from miles away on the expressway and like a storm chaser, followed the funnel cloud of destruction to its epicenter. The most odd sensation, watching the flames explode higher and threatened to burn the entire neighborhood and come my way, was the absolute silence. There weren’t any cries of anguish or shock. A lone fire truck was on the street and the fatalistic firemen worked to contain the fire as a small group watched with stoicism. A small folding table was set up outside a grimy liquor store and a few men were watching the fire and drinking. More liquor stores were across the street and most of the residential houses were abandoned, probably like this one. An ambulance was parked nearby and a couple of homeless asked another man if it was a controlled fire. After he said it wasn’t, they noticed a man and woman packing food into crates across the parking lot. One of them exclaimed, ‘Food bank!” Then he repeated himself, again, and again. Free food was a bigger deal than the inferno. The two of them wandered over to the food bank with a “cool, man” jaunt. Surrounded on all sides with decay and fire, life was good to these two guys for at least the afternoon.

The Unwinding is thick with profiles, descriptions, and life stories. Data collection is a bigger deal these days than a compelling narrative. Do your research like NSA, collect every little piece of information and cram it into the story. The Unwinding was pretty disappointing, considering the reviews. George Packer is a much better writer than LeDuff. He does better research. Everything about Packer is probably better than LeDuff, like Manhattan is better than Detroit in every way but the coney dog. But something was missing. The autopsy report wasn’t signed, not by Shakespeare or a Kipling.

An elderly blind man was walking through one of the dangerous neighborhoods near the fire. He wore an orange safety jacket, helmet, and waved the cane back and forth in front of his feet. He walked with his head up and a smile on his face past the cracked asphalt, weeds, boarded up houses. I felt like jumping out of the car to ask him what he saw with his imagination that he couldn’t see with his eyes. Was he creating his own reality or stuck in someone else’s?

Close your eyes after reading LeDuff’s autopsy and you’ll see a tired hardened fireman whirling back at LeDuff in a neighborhood that’s one big fire trap, swearing at LeDuff to put the dead kid in his fucking notebook. You’ll see in your imagination that fat homicide detective sinking his teeth into a coney dog and talking murder and the Great Hunts, like Kipling’s Great Game, taking place in the squalor and refuse and enjoying this kind of hunt for the prize at the end. A certificate from Shakespeare or a Kipling for participating inside the gates. Close your eyes after reading George Packer and you’ll see his quality writing from the perimeter. He doesn’t go inside the gates.

I wanted very much for Gordon Young to write it like LeDuff and he almost pulls it off. Flint burns like Detroit. There were more than fifty suspected arson cases in the two weeks after Flint firemen are laid off and Young, an accomplished journalist and college instructor in Silicon Valley, writes of the impossibility of catching arsonists with so little staff. A fireman describes the arsonists as “a spider spinning a web of fires.” They’re sexual predators and suffering serious financial problems, according to the FBI profile. But these fires are not set by arsonists. The fires are set by professionals. Firemen burned down these houses. The fireman explains the difference between the pro and the amateur. The amateur stays on the perimeter, setting fire on a porch or window, always making sure there is an easy escape. The amateur arsonist never puts himself in danger to set a better fire.

The pro, the fireman explains, isn’t afraid of the fire and danger. The pro goes inside and set the house ablaze at its foundation, making the fire burn longer and do more damage before the alarm is sounded. The pro can take the heat.

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