Bill Morris’ new novel, Motor City Burning (Pegasus Books), begins on Opening Day at Tiger Stadium. It’s 1968, nearly a year since the race riots ravaged Detroit, and five days since the death of Martin Luther King Jr. This immediate submersion into baseball-and-hot-dog Americana and fraught historical context establish the duality of Morris’s novel: Motor City Burning is a summer whodunit, a crime novel complete with sexy broads and hard-drinking cops sparring in one-liners, but it’s also one grappling with a sense of civic responsibility.
At Opening Day is Willie Bledsoe, literary aspirant, Tuskegee drop-out, disillusioned veteran of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and now busboy at a “honky golf club in the suburbs.” He’s also the prime suspect for detective Frank Doyle, who should be canonized and represented in portraits on police station walls across America. He’s a gun-hating progressive who likes Chopin, makes ratatouille with the tomatoes he grows in his backyard, and stays up late unburdening himself to the ghost of his father, who died on the line at Ford. All this sensitivity proves useful when he meets the equally improbable Cecilia, a bartender/art history grad student who knows her baseball, has great legs, and is easily placated when her crime-fighting beau forgets to call her for three weeks. Willie writes out his memories of sit-ins and jail cells, Doyle pursues Willie, and the Tigers advance toward their World Series win against the St Louis Cardinals.
One of the most compelling things about Motor City Burning is what continues to make Detroit compelling; how the city both encapsulates the rise of American industry and shows us devastation on the scale of Roman ruins. White flight and the movement of the factories out to the tax havens of the suburbs had already taken their toll on Detroit by 1968, and it’s this deterioration that allows Morris to occasionally transcend the kitschy crime novel tropes to a gritty lyricism. We see Detroit with “glass glittering on the sidewalks, houses in need of paint, black bruises on the street where cars had leaked their vital fluids.” We return in each chapter to “the great sooty iceberg of Tiger Stadium” with its “bases glow[ing] like sugar cubes” and its smell of “popcorn, wet wool, vomit, perfume, cigar smoke, and boiled pork.”
Like having a milkshake beneath a picture of James Dean at your favorite 50s diner, the unabashed nostalgia in Motor City Burning can be plenty satisfying, too. The Holland-Dozier-Holland hits are on the radio, Coney dogs are washed down with Vernor’s ginger ale or Stroh’s, and the muscle cars are speeding down Woodward Avenue. When Motown receptionist Octavia (who’s also sexy with great legs) joins the narrative, it’s hard not to roll your eyes, but harder still not to delight in her gossip, her miniskirts, how she drives Willie to Berry Gordy’s Cadillac-surrounded mansion, spilling revelers out onto the lawn like it’s just another night at Gatsby’s. Consider Detroit’s current woes—its bankruptcy, its boarded houses and empty factories, the activists hauling gallons of water through the Windsor tunnel for thousands who’ve had to live without water this summer—and the scene moves beyond cheesy sixties fun to a ghost story.
Willie and Frank’s alternating chapters affectively highlight Detroit’s racial tension, and the book seems determined to show the prejudices and resentments on both sides. The amount of racial slurs this involves may be unsettling for the squeamishly liberal—Motor City Burning may be the only book you read this summer that includes the phrase “Polack weasel.” Morris’s attempts to render dialect further complicate his good intentions. It’s unclear why all black characters refer to the city as “D-troit,” or how a girl who says things like “Y’all were some bus-ridin’ fools” got a job answering the phone for Berry Gordy. It’s hard not to think that the Freedom Riders and MLK, whose ghosts hover over these pages, would be uneasy reading a black character saying, “Now quit axin so many questions. It’s payback time. Gimme the keys to you damn car.”
In spite of its flaws, there’s a tortured affection for Detroit all throughout Motor City Burning that makes the novel feel trustworthy. The heroes are clear, but the villains never are, and there’s sympathy even where there’s a pull toward stereotype. The novel is both a homesick letter to Detroit and an elegy; it wants nothing more than to savor a Coney dog and a Stroh’s at the ballpark, but it knows once the game’s over there’s a troubled city to confront on the drive home. On their first date, when Cecilia tells Doyle, “I do believe you love this sorry old city,” it’s easy to imagine Morris projecting himself into the hopeful young cop answering, “Yeah, I do. I really do.”
By Kelsey Ronan