I like to think that I am more comfortable in Detroit than most Ann Arborites. I know my way around the city and make a point of visiting often. Although I exercise caution occasionally, I haven’t felt much fear in the city for decades. Still, there are times when I find myself at unknown intersections surrounded by burned and boarded-up buildings, where sullen young men stare into my car with a monumental indifference, that I realize there are lives here—less than an hour from home—that seem as foreign from my own suddenly effete life as any on the planet.
Luke Bergmann is a former Ann Arborite who has moved into the world of some of those young men, and he has written brilliantly and passionately about it in Getting Ghost: Two Young Lives and the Struggle for the Soul of an American City. Although Bergmann’s book grows out of his Ph.D. dissertation, there is little of the specialist’s-monograph-published-for-tenure-consideration in it. Bergmann does supply some of the historical and theoretical context that might explain something of the environment for the young men he writes about, but most of his book—and by far the most interesting part for those of us without academic concerns—is his vivid and meticulous documentary portrait of two young men: Dude, on the East Side, and Rodney, who lives and works west of Woodward. These two adolescent drug dealers allowed Bergmann remarkable access to their lives, bringing him into their homes, telling him their fears and desires, introducing him to their families and neighborhoods. Even though they might have started out as articulate informants for an interested anthropologist, they clearly became his friends. While never condoning what they do to survive in their city and doing what he can to help them imagine different lives (like tutoring them for the GED exam), Bergmann clearly doesn’t judge them. Without romanticizing their difficult lives in the least, Bergmann finds qualities of loyalty, integrity, dependability, and perseverance in these young men that are well beyond their mainstream representations in the dominant culture. And he convinces us of the joy they are often able to find in otherwise very grim circumstances.
But these lives are never easy. Bergmann defines his title this way: “As young drug dealers strive to find ways toward ‘legal’ jobs and straight lives, getting ghost is a rich metaphor—for leaving a scene, for quitting the trade, and for their own mortality.” In that early definition, he prepares us for the hopes and tragedies we find in the narrative that follows. The reader moves with this author as he discovers these two lives in Detroit, and at the end it is impossible not to be moved as deeply by the young men who have become his friends.
Luke Bergmann, who now lives on the East Side of Detroit, returns to Ann Arbor to read from Getting Ghost at Shaman Drum Bookshop on Tuesday, February 3.