Elmore Leonard, the Homer of Detroit: A Eulogy

Guest post by Charles J. Rzepka

The people of Detroit are again in mourning. Just a month ago they mourned their city. Today, they mourn the death of their best-known citizen.

On July 18th, Detroit declared bankruptcy. Less than two weeks later, in the middle of working on his forty-sixth novel, Blue Dreams, Elmore Leonard suffered a stroke. He died this morning, August 20th, at the age of 87. The fate of the metropolis and of the man may seem uncannily coincident, but the arcs of their respective histories and future prospects could not be more different.

The city had been staggering for decades, ever since the 12th Street Riots of 1967 expanded the trickle of white flight out of its northern and western fringes to flood proportions. Detroit is now notable for the photogenic appeal of its industrial wreckage, the lone and level grasslands where proud residential neighborhoods once stood, the magnitude of its infrastructural implosion, the bracing stamina and solidarity of its remaining residents, and its utter singularity as an ongoing lab experiment in urban apocalypse. There is no other city in these United States or, I would argue, in the world that comes close to replicating Detroit’s perversely fascinating mix of working class industrial and middle-class corporate collapse. It is the La Brea Tar Pit of the American Century, crammed with dinosaurs whose extinction, long anticipated, is so recent that their bones lie floating on the surface, in plain sight.

It’s also notable, world wide, for a writer named Elmore Leonard.

I would say “native son,” but Leonard was born in New Orleans and didn’t arrive in the Motor City to stay until 1934, when he was eight years old. It didn’t take him long to fit right in. A good part of the interview time he generously granted me when I was beginning to write Being Cool was taken up with events and experiences in which his early life and Detroit’s vigorous maturity intersected: sharing a pull-down Murphy bed in the living room of a cramped apartment in the heart of what was then known as “The City of Champions”; making friends at Blessed Sacrament Elementary, where he persuaded the grim Sister Estelle to let him stage a scene from All Quiet on the Western Front in their fifth-grade classroom; sitting with his friends three floors up on the edge of a rooftop near Woodward Avenue, with the city stretched out below his feet; hitchhiking to the Thumb area to pick strawberries for summer cash; playing baseball in the Detroit Sandlot League and, along with football, at the University of Detroit High School; taking dates to Eastwood Gardens and the Paradise Theater where Count Basie was playing, and later, while attending U. of D. as an undergraduate, to “black and tan” downtown nightclubs where the new sound, be-bop, was just happening. That was only three years after the Detroit race riots of 1943—an early omen of what was in store for the city that Ford and Chrysler and GM built.

For all the history they share, Detroit didn’t make an appearance in Leonard’s fiction until well into his career, after he had earned a reputation writing Westerns. Published in 1974, 52 Pickup, his fourth crime novel, marked the emergence of Detroit as a major player. It was the first of a group written over the next six years, including Swag, Unknown Man No. 89, The Switch, and City Primeval: High Noon in Detroit, that I call the Motor City Five. Together, they offer the reader Leonard’s most vivid realizations of Detroit, not just as a locale, but as a tragic character in its own right just beginning its long, slow decline: busy, crowded, dirty, parochial, demographically diverse, built up and boarded up, spread out and burned out—not for tourists. Leonard’s Detroit was a place where the downtown Hudson’s Department Store could still seem a plausible target for a big heist, while the aftereffects of 1967 were slowly and steadily poisoning the bloodstream of the city.

Leonard returned often to Detroit and its environs in the decades since—in books like Split Images, Freaky Deaky, Killshot, Pagan Babies, Mr. Paradise, and, in historical retrospect, Up in Honey’s Room and Comfort to the Enemy. Together these novels constitute a series of freeze frames chronicling the slide into oblivion of a great American city. But as Detroit fell, Leonard’s reputation rose, and it will continue to rise. He’s been referred to as “the Dickens of Detroit,” but it might be more accurate to call him its Homer, and Detroit his Ilium.

As of this writing, the morning of Elmore Leonard’s death, the city’s long-term future and that of its most famous author remain as divergent as their coincident histories. “He’s a fighter,” said a guardedly optimistic Gregg Sutter, Leonard’s friend and researcher, little more than two weeks ago. Detroit is down for the count, and the loss of its most knowledgeable, and affectionate, chronicler will only add the burden of mourning to its pile of troubles as it comes to. Elmore Leonard remains, and will remain, standing, his place in American letters and in the hearts of his fellow Detroiters secure. When the city where he grew up is just a memory fading generation by generation, people will still be reading Swag and Killshot.  Troy lies in ruins, but Homer’s song lives on.

rzepkaCharles J. Rzepka is a professor of English at Boston University. His latest book, Being Cool: The Work of Elmore Leonard, was published earlier this month.