You don’t have to live like this (review)

You don’t have to live like this (Edelweiss)
Benjamin Markovits
Harper

As a lifetime resident of the Midwest, I’m a sucker for novels about the region (especially those written by Midwesterners like this). I think the good-people-salt-of-the-earth values take on life is refreshing. So I’ve been anxiously waiting to read Benjamin Markovits’ novel about Detroit for a few months. For many Michiganders, Detroit is ever in our peripheral vision and there might be a little “as Detroit goes, so goes the state” bit of worry associated with our preoccupation of Detroit’s woes.

Here’s the author’s take on Detroit.

Thirty-something Greg Marnier is at loose ends. After his doing his undergrad at Yale, he’s just spent ten years Detroitstudying and teaching abroad in what turned out to be a dead-end career path. He moves home to Louisiana and is back sleeping in his childhood bedroom. His high school and college friends are on the adult track: good jobs, apartments in Manhattan, babies on the way. Marny (as his friends call him) is stuck.

Then a Yale buddy who’s made more money than he knows what to do with crosses Marny’s path while he’s killing time working for the Obama campaign and presents him with an intriguing idea—Robert James has bought up hundreds of derelict properties in Detroit with the intention of creating a new settlement. Fix up the houses, bring in new residents to live rent free while the neighborhood takes root, and rebuild Detroit settlement by settlement. With nothing to lose and everything to gain, Marny jumps at the chance and within a few month he’s patching plaster, clearing out trash, and otherwise trying to make an abandoned 1930s duplex livable.

As might be expected, long-time residents in the neighborhood (holdouts who refused to sell to Robert James) are resentful. New Jamestown (as the neighborhood is dubbed) settlers are seen as interlopers—overwhelmingly white (despite an attempt to choose applicants who would provide the neighborhood with racial balance), mostly middle to upper middle class, and college educated do-gooders—and from the start there are hints at a culture clash to come: Marny buys a gun, settlers patrol the neighborhood at night, and some long-time residents’ are openly hostile.

No conversation about Detroit is complete without a discussion of race and there is plenty of that in You Don’t to go around the block two or three times. I was hoping Markovits would offer some sort of new perspective or insight into racial tensions in the Rust Belt, but there were none—which is, sad to say, probably pretty much the reality of race relations in Detroit. I was a bit surprised that Markovits isn’t a Detroit native, nor does he even live in the state. And I thought it off-putting that the writer is, in fact, a native Texan who has lived most of his adult life as an expat in Europe. Ummm … talk about interloper! Where’s Markovits’ street cred?

There are more Michigan and Detroit references in You Don’t Have To Live Like This than I could count—General Motors and Ford (of course!), Lake St. Clair, WDIV, the Tigers, Belle Isle, Grand Rapids (a shout out to my hometown), Woodward Avenue, Slows Bar BQ, Detroit Free Press, Ferris State, Kendall College of Art and Design, I-94, Grosse Point, Ann Arbor, Zingerman’s Deli, Bell’s Oberon. And that list is hardly definitive. At first the references were fun, but halfway through the novel it felt forced, as if Markovits wrote with a Detroit travel guide at hand. Enough already!

You Don’t Have To Live Like This is not a short read at 400 pages and it is a ramble through any number of cultural issues. There are hedge funds and black on white crime and a skewed justice system and vigilantes and bad press and price fixing–and, of course, race relations. Even Obama makes an appearance at a Christmas party where he suggests a 3-on-3 basketball game, and elbows Marny, leaving him with a bloody nose.  My feelings on the novel are mixed because like so many contemporary novels I felt it lacked focus.

But simply for a romp in my backyard, it was definitely worth the time.

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