Scott Lasser’s new novel, Say Nice Things About Detroit, starts with a double homicide and dementia. That makes it sound like an Elmore Leonard novel, and Lasser’s fast-paced narrative and ear for the speech of the Motor City are clearly influenced by Leonard. But there is a difference. Although the murders are resolved, their resolution is not the central focus of the book, which directs its attention to the people whose lives are changed by the crime.
Lasser’s protagonist, David, returns to the city after twenty-five years away to help his father and his sick mother. A lawyer, divorced and overwhelmed by the pain of losing his only child in a car accident, he finds a city that most of his old friends have left; they now live in L.A., Orlando, Chicago, or Dallas. No sooner has he arrived, though, than he sees a news report about the murder of his high school girlfriend and her brother. While giving his sympathies to the family, he meets the old girlfriend’s sister, another Detroiter living in comfort far away. Their relationship, and the way everything around them is shaped by grief and violence, is the story of the novel.
It’s a good story, but Lasser has done something else, too. Detroit–its history and its famous struggles with the decline of industry, the pressures of new forms of segregation, the devastations of drugs and poverty, and the faint indications of hope–becomes a character in itself, shaping and changing the action. When someone asks David why he stays in the city, he says, “For me, this is the only real place.” He continues:
“This is the place I first knew my family, where I learned what the seasons are, where I first felt the cold, the true cold, the cold that makes your nose crinkle and your spit bounce … I had my first kiss here, fell in love for the first time, and now I’m back because I want to be back and I don’t give a damn about how the city has gone down the tubes or its poor prospects for the future. I’m connected here. It’s home.”
There are other moments like this, about the music of Detroit, the moments that remind us that this city is not dead. It seems that Lasser believes–recognizing the difficulties, even the horrors, of the city, knowing that most of the press over the last forty years about its “renaissance” has been so much PR–that now, when no one appears to be watching, things are indeed changing in Detroit. The city becomes necessary to his characters and to the new life they imagine.
Scott Lasser reads from Say Nice Things About Detroit at Nicola’s Books on Monday, July 16.