Angels of Detroit by Christopher Hebert, review by Bruce Jacobs
Christopher Hebert's epic saga begins tellingly with young college dropout Dobbs hitchhiking to Detroit from a Kansas truck stop where "no one would admit to being headed in his direction." This is 21st-century Detroit--hollowed out, burned down, boarded up--a city that "emptied faster than it could be filled." Angels of Detroit is the story of a ragtag group of young activists ("white kids from the suburbs with rings in their faces") trying to save the city with half-hearted street demonstrations, while living peacefully among those who stubbornly stayed in their emptied neighborhoods, trying to rebuild them one step at a time.
Hebert meticulously juggles a broad swath of urban characters in addition to the idealistic protestors, including Dobbs, reluctantly caught up in human trafficking through debt, and African American security guard Darius at HSI (the last multi-national manufacturer with a factory in the city). HSI top executive Ruth Hamilton is fighting her board to keep the local plant open. Hispanic woodworking craftsman Boni lives in his grandmother's old house, plotting to blow up abandoned buildings to call attention to urban blight. Cranky Constance, in her 70s, is trying to hold her family together and turn the empty lots around her into a cornucopia of vegetables. And Constance's precocious, wild great-granddaughter, Clementine, fearlessly navigates the city streets and alleys, picking up "treasures" and helping whoever needs it. Like a Mad Max movie set or the landscape in Cormac McCarthy's The Road, Hebert's Detroit is a desolate place. Although rich and white Ruth Hamilton moved to the suburbs like her peers, the rest of the novel's cast are inner-city squatters and scavengers, cobbling together something out of nothing as best they can.
An editor of the University of Michigan Press and professor of English at the University of Tennessee, Hebert mined similar themes of poverty, politics and class in his first novel, The Boiling Season, set in Haiti. Angels of Detroit, however, is only tangentially about the politics of Detroit's descent. Rather, it is a Dickensian collection of Motor City characters bent on personal survival and rebuilding what they can. Despite a heavy atmosphere of decay, this is still a car town, and Hebert scatters his narrative with auto industry references, such as describing a Corvette as "zero to pussy in three point one seconds," or a tricked-out van as a "playhouse on wheels... a vehicle that could have been built only by people unaware of the existence of human suffering." The graveyard of Detroit is Hebert's stage, and fully formed characters Constance and Clementine are the "angels" who just might bring it back to life. Ambitious, well-paced, observant--Angels of Detroit is a first-rate novel of flawed but admirable characters who want a brighter future in what one of them calls "the new Old West.
Bruce Jacobs's review first appeared in Shelf Awareness.