Lehman Trader-Author Prowls Detroit’s Klingon Air Space: Books

'Say Nice Things About Detroit'
"Say Nice Things About Detroit" is written by Scott Lasser. Source: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. via Bloomberg

For Scott Lasser, a novelist who once traded government bonds at Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc., death is more a beginning than an end.

In the prologue to “The Year That Follows,” a trader perishes in the World Trade Center inferno. In his new book, “Say Nice Things About Detroit,” seven cadavers pile up in the first seven pages.

We learn, indirectly, that a black man and a white woman were just gunned down in an E-Class Mercedes in Motor City. Then we find out that five people died during a highway wreck in the Rocky Mountain snow.

Yet this isn’t a story about death. It’s about the living, about survivors who must pick up the shards after their loved ones have passed. Though the story unfolds between 1994 and 2007, it’s rooted in an idea as old as the Talmud: By saving one life, you save an entire world.

The main survivor is David Halpert, an estate lawyer who returns to Detroit years after fleeing to Denver. His mother is suffering from dementia, and his father asks him to come home -- to stay, not to visit.

“Only the demented moved to Detroit,” he thinks at first, before realizing that nothing important holds him to Colorado.

Four years before, David’s son went on a ski trip and died in a road crash. A divorce followed. Now 45, David is a barren man with thinning hair who rents a furnished apartment.

Economic Collapse

He has made an important discovery, though: It feels good to be back in Detroit, however strange that might sound to outsiders. It’s a sensation familiar to anyone who knows the city and has witnessed its grinding economic collapse.

On his first morning back in 2006, David opens the Free Press to find a photo of his fair-haired high-school girlfriend, Natalie -- “the serious love of his youth, maybe his life” -- above the fold on page one. Alongside is a photo of her light-skinned black half-brother, Dirk, a retired FBI agent. The two had been murdered in his sleek German car, “a dozen shots fired at close range.”

The funeral draws Natalie’s sister, Carolyn, to Detroit from her home in Los Angeles. One thing leads to another, and soon David and Carolyn become “romantically involved,” as the jacket copy puts it. This is a two-dimensional description of a complexly rendered relationship, one simmering with dormant jealousies, troubled marriages and irrepressible cravings.

Hiroshima Homecoming

When David talks of returning to Detroit for good, Carolyn says “it’s like moving back to Hiroshima.”

David’s answer is pitch-perfect: “People live there now, I’m pretty sure.”

The narrative then toggles to the mid-1990s and back, crisscrossing racial borders, industrial wastelands and neighborhoods so blighted with drugs and guns that Dirk called them “Klingon air space.”

As David seeks to make sense out of Dirk and Natalie’s unsolved murders, the past intrudes on the present, and Lasser quietly tightens the vise. An introspective character study gradually builds into something more menacing. The narrative clicks along, making me willing to overlook a few too many coincidences and one plot point that strained my credulity.

Lasser is an economical writer who reveals character and class through details and dialogue. When David returns to his parent’s house, he sees “the same framed prints from the Galerie Maeght, the same black upright Steinway.” When he asks his mother if she really is losing her mind, she looks at his father and replies, “Not yet. But he’s pushing me.”

For Detroiters, Lasser offers a glint of hope. For those who wonder why anyone still lives in the home of the Not-So-Big Three, he provides a rich and satisfying answer.

“Say Nice Things About Detroit” is published by Norton (267 pages, $25.95). To buy this book in North America, click here.

(James Pressley writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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