The Fire This Time

On a sweltering evening in July 1967 I sat at the window of a Canadian steakhouse and watched my country burn. Only hours before I had arrived in Detroit to write for The New York Times Magazine about the most destructive "civil disorder" in American history (43 killed, 386 injured, 477 buildings destroyed or damaged). At my hotel, I found Gene Roberts, who was covering the story for the daily New York Times and, with a couple of Detroit reporters, we set out for dinner. But on that, the second day of rioting, there was scarcely a restaurant open downtown. So, crossing the Detroit River to Windsor, Canada, we took refuge in a venerable tavern at water's edge.

From our table, we gazed across the oily river to the towers of Detroit's business district, out along the city's grand boulevard, Woodward Avenue, toward the relentlessly white suburbs of Bloomfield Hills and Grosse Point. Over the city hung murky billows of soot from conflagrations now guttering in tenements across the city's black belt. And, here and there, pillars of flame rose from the gloom, scattering showers of glowing embers against the darkling sky. As the fires subsided that week, and I began to move around the city, talking with survivors of the apocalypse, a question began to take shape: why Detroit? In those years, the Motor City scarcely seemed a prime candidate for such a paroxysm of rage. Its mayor, Jerome P. Cavanagh, whom Newsweek had called "urban America's most articulate spokesman, was widely regarded as the most enlightened mayor of a major American city on racial and social issues. An indefatigable advocate of innovative federal programs to tend urban afflictions, he was invariably first in line at the counter once those programs were launched. Detroit was the first city to get federal money for a poverty program and among the first to qualify under the "model cities" program. In short, if the Great Society effort to empower the poor and the black had any hope of success, Detroit looked like one of its most promising laboratories.

Moreover, Detroit's black community was far from the nation's most needy. With the auto industry setting the pace for its industrial pay scale, unskilled manufacturing wages in Detroit were the second-highest in the nation. More than 57 percent of Detroit blacks owned automobiles, 11.4 percent had two. An estimated 45 percent owned their own homes. Detroit's chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was the largest in the nation and the most successful in fund-raising.

Why then had Detroit rioted? I took my tentative answer from a black poverty worker who told me, "Detroit has opened the golden door to the Negro. But only [a] relatively few can get through at one time. That's the real trouble." George Henderson, the black assistant to the superintendent of public schools said, To raise levels of expectation without providing corresponding opportunity is psychologically devastating."

Kropotkin put it best: "The hopeless don't revolt because revolution is an act of hope." Detroit's blacks had rioted, I concluded 23 years ago, not because they had given up, but precisely because they still hoped.


* * *

On the night before Halloween in 1986, Ze'ev Chafets, an expatriate American writer, born in Pontiac, Michigan, but now living in Israel, took a tour of Detroit's neighborhoods to watch the city burn. In recent years, Devil's Night in Detroit -- a 72-hour period embracing Halloween itself -- has been celebrated by the random incineration of the city's black neighborhoods.

"Detroit that night seemed like some grotesque urban horror film," Chafets writes. "At every stop there were rumors and speculation. Someone who had just come from dinner at the Summit, a posh restaurant atop the downtown Renaissance Center, said that suburbanite patrons were cheering the fires as they dined alongside revolving glass walls. A fat man with a drooping mustache claimed that a family was trapped inside a burning house on the east side, and led a party of sightseers off to look for them... Flames raced through the brush and into abandoned wooden buildings. The gawkers cheered the firemen and jostled one another happily."

In the Devil's Night celebration that year, some 400 buildings -- nearly as many as burned during the entire Detroit riot -- were destroyed or damaged by fire.

But this time, few think that Detroit's blacks are burning down their city out of displaced hope. There is little explicit political rhetoric or liberation theology or black nationalism in these burnings. To whites who have retreated en masse to the city's suburbs, the fire this time looks less like God's judgment, or even man's, than the work of desperate, alienated, zonked-out, cracked-up black youths with nothing better to do on a holiday than burn down a building.

Indeed, as Chafets roamed the city in subsequent months, he found so much violence and pain, illness and alienation that one is tempted to see these fires as the immolation of a community that has already clambered onto its funeral bier. But if the conflagrations of the 1960s were bred in part by the frustration of rising expectations, the true tinder of Devil's Night may be the loss of such expectations -- rooted in years of inattention and malattention to the human needs of urban America, and particularly its black communities.

It is a dismaying contrast: Detroit 1967, seething with the thwarted aspirations of the civil rights and anti-poverty movements, and Detroit 1991, festering in a poisonous stew of homicide and crack and AIDS and white flight. Indeed, so bleak are many of our cityscapes these days that our literature often seems at a loss to evoke them with a fresh eye, much less with prescriptions for new public policy.

If one cares about our cities, about the future of black America, about the ebbing dream of a community in which classes and races live together in dignity and civility, how does one examine these great strands of the American dilemma? What literary or scholarly form promises to address these issues with the greatest clarity and insight and passion?


* * *

The books that prompt this essay represent three of the most common means of grappling with such matters: the "field work" school of sociology; personal journalism mixed with introspective memoir; and the fact-based novel, laced with the heady wine of metafiction.

Before addressing the books themselves, a word on the state of literary non-fiction in America. In many respects, the genre is thriving. Certainly more money is being made from it than ever before. Competent newspapermen and women who have turned to books now routinely draw advances ranging upwards of $150,000 for a vivid narrative inspired by a social theme. Those books often end up as television mini-series or feature films. When one adds book club revenues and other subsidiary rights, the rewards can be lush indeed.

The most successful of these tales are written in a third-person, fly-on-the-wall, omniscient narrative, a style that began to take hold in this country in the years just after World War II. It had its inception with some of the talented New Yorker crew, notably John Hersey in Hiroshima (1945) and Lillian Ross in her non-fiction novella, Picture (1952), but reached its full flower with Truman Capote, who coined the phrase "non-fiction novel" to describe In Cold Blood (1966). The effect of Capote's book on my generation of newspaper reporters was electric. If our counterparts in the previous generation had invariably dreamed of writing fiction -- they were said to keep a bottle of bourbon in the bottom left-hand drawer of their desks, an unfinished novel on the bottom right -- we were soon dreaming of our In Cold Blood, our contribution to "the literature of fact."

And indeed my generation has produced some stunning non-fiction narratives: David Halberstam's The Best and the Brightest, Gay Talese's The Kingdom and the Power, Tracy Kidder's The Soul of A New Machine, Richard Kluger's Simple Justice, David McCullough's Path Between the Seas, Neil Sheehan's A Bright Shining Lie, Susan Sheehan's Is There No Place on Earth for Me?, Taylor Branch's Parting the Waters. Some of these are more novelistic than others, some more historical, others biographical. But most use the seamless narrative, cinematic scenes, reconstructed dialogue, and saturation research which allows the writer to get inside the head of his subjects, and most keep the narrator, his biases, his techniques, and sometimes even his sources, hidden behind the theatrical scrim.

I have written in this style myself. Indeed, so pervasive is it today that it must be considered the Non-Fiction Orthodoxy. But of late, some of us who practice this craft have begun to ruminate about its limitations, to wonder whether it has really achieved the superiority that Tom Wolfe claimed for it two decades ago. Janet Malcolm, in her infinitely malicious, largely misguided attack on Joe McGinniss, "The Journalist and the Murderer" (which first appeared in a two-part series in The New Yorker), raised some important questions about the relationship between reporters and their sources. Other critics have raised questions about the way reporters tend to adopt the viewpoint of those who talk to them, while shifting the blame toward those who don't cooperate. Given the great promise this form seemed to hold out for grappling with our most important social issues, some critics have wondered why such a large proportion of the narratives of late seem to deal with "true crime." Finally, some of our most thoughtful journalists have begun to wonder whether narratives, compelling as they are to read, don't pretend to greater omniscience than any honest observer should assert, whether they don't disguise too many hidden assumptions and buried biases.

In turn, one detects an intriguing return to the first person -- in the travel literature of Jonathan Raban and Bruce Chatwin, in the memoirs of Geoffrey Wolff and Annie Dillard, in the journalism of Thomas Friedman and Ian Frazier. There are those who argue that the more personal style promises a greater honesty and authenticity than can ever be plumbed by the Orthodoxy. Its advocates suggest that by laying bare the inquiry -- by following the writer as he stalks his territory, trolling for experience, examining evidence, debriefing sources, sounding preconceptions, testing hypotheses -- such work cuts closer to the bone of truth, if such bone there is, beneath all the seductive flesh of narrative. Indeed, there are intriguing similarities between this emerging critique of American journalism and the deconstruction that is currently subjecting academic disciplines to rigorous -- if, at times, pettifogging -- scrutiny.

None of this is to suggest that the third-person narrative should be junked, but merely to wonder whether it could be improved by borrowing, or adapting, techniques from other journalistic and literary forms.


* * *

What first intrigued me about the three books which are the subjects of this essay was precisely that none of them was written within the Non-Fiction Orthodoxy, that each took a more personal, a more idiosyncratic, approach to the great questions of race and class in the city.

On first approach, Streetwise does not seem an especially personal work. This study of blacks and whites jostling each other in adjacent big city neighborhoods is written in the formal language of academic sociology. Except in the introduction, the author never surfaces explicitly in the first person. And yet, it is an intensely personal investigation of the inner-city area where Elijah Anderson lives. It has consumed much of his past fourteen years. It deals with many of his own friends and neighbors, the shops where he does business, the restaurants where he eats, the community organizations to which, in some cases, he belongs. Clearly, between his courses at the University of Pennsylvania and the demands of his personal life, Anderson has lived this book.

There is much to praise here. Elijah Anderson is one of the last American sociologists still practicing in the noble tradition of "field work," the branch developed by Robert E. Park at the University of Chicago from 1913 to 1933. Field work has given us the seminal books of Lloyd Warner, the Lynds, Everett Hughes, William F. Whyte, Jr., Erving Goffman, and others. Like his predecessors, Anderson gets out into the city, walks its streets, listens to its people, makes it his laboratory.

Some of it comes wonderfully alive. Listen to this retired black man bemoaning violence against Asian newcomers:

"I don't have no objection to them people. If they hardworking people, come over here and build a foundation for themselves, God bless them. Understand what I'm saying? These niggers have the same opportunity, but that's all they wanta do. Ripped the man's radio out...I noticed these people have come over here and stores have been empty for twenty years and they get together, and two or three months later, they got that whole place stocked off. Colored folks got the same opportunity to do that, if they want to. They don't wanta do that, though. Onliest thing they want do is sell crack, stand on the corner, sell ten bags."

It is no coincidence that the founder of the field work school began life as a newspaperman, for the fact-gathering techniques of the "field worker" are much like those of the conscientious reporter. It is their products that differ profoundly.

Anderson follows the time-honored rules of his discipline in disguising all identities in Streetwise: the city in which his story is set becomes "Eastern City"; the two neighborhoods that interest him he calls "the Village" and "Northton"; and the residents of those neighborhoods become "an elderly black woman," "a thirty-year-old white man who grew up in an Irish working-class section of the city," or even "one male informant." Where he uses names they are pseudonyms.

The first thing that needs to be said about such disguises is that, at least for communities and institutions, they simply don't work very well. Nobody can doubt that "Eastern City" is Philadelphia, that "the Village" is Powelton Village, that "Northton" is Mantua, that the group he calls "ACT" is MOVE, the black organization later firebombed out of its headquarters. Indeed, such disguises often seem to be sociology's empty ritual, a dance of the seven veils in which the veils keep slipping down to disclose the forbidden form beneath.

For individuals, though, they work all too well. Indeed, the practice blurs and obfuscates much of Anderson's assiduous research. What does the cardboard phrase "an elderly black woman" tell us about her? Is she a welfare mother or a professor of sociology? Does she read The Philadelphia Inquirer or the National Enquirer? Does she listen to gospel or gavottes? In short, who is she?

To a journalist trained in the conviction that "God is in the details," Anderson's sociological short-hand washes away precisely those things about people -- those quirky, crotchety, eccentric attributes -- that make people so intensely interesting.

There will be those who say: what does it really matter? If her name is Mrs. O'Brien and Anderson wants to call her Mrs. O'Reilly or simply an "Irish-American woman," who cares? But if this technique is truly designed to preserve the confidentiality of the sociologist's -- or journalist's -- source, one can rarely stop there. If one really wants to protect her from identification, not only by readers in remote cities, but by her neighbors, one must change not only her name, but her address, the school her children attend, her occupation, her close friends -- in short, all those things idiosyncratic enough to identify her. If one is going to change all that, why write sociology -- or journalism -- in the first place? Why not write a novel? (We'll get to that.)

Some sociologists will argue that people won't talk honestly to you if you don't offer them an impermeable disguise. Having done this work myself, I don't believe it. It is astonishing what people will tell you -- on the record and with full attribution -- if only you are genuinely curious about their lives.

But then this practice is not merely in service of confidentiality; it is also a way for sociologists to proclaim that they are not really interested in the individual, that they are concerned with groups, and social types.

Fair enough, except that this very groupism collides head on with the central argument of Anderson's book: the distinction between "street etiquette" and "street wisdom," and a plea for the latter.

Everyone on the streets of Mantua and Powelton Village, he writes, "must negotiate their passage with others they encounter." But there are two ways of doing that.

The first, which Anderson calls "street etiquette," formulates a set of rules and applies them in every situation, based on rapid scrutiny of "the looks, speech, public behavior, gender, and color of those sharing the environment." This requires "only a generalized perception of the people one encounters, based on the most superficial characteristics. Because it represents a crude set of guidelines, street etiquette makes the streets feel somewhat comfortable to the user, but it may be a security blanket rather than a real practical help."

Some city dwellers graduate to a more sophisticated perception that Anderson calls "street wisdom." They see that "the public environment does not always respond to a formal set of rules rigidly applied to all problems." In recognizing "that every public trial is unique, they become aware that individuals, not types, define specific events."

"Street wisdom and street etiquette are comparable to a scalpel and a hatchet," Anderson concludes. "One is capable of cutting extremely fine lines between vitally different organs; the other can only make broader, more brutal strokes." Indeed, those who achieve street wisdom, Anderson asserts, in effect "engage in 'field research'."

Of course, the good field worker, like the good reporter, attends to the unique in humankind. If one sat down with Elijah Anderson at one of his neighborhood taverns, he could no doubt describe in arresting detail the private lives and public trials of his Philadelphia. But, writing within the anachronistic rules of his discipline, he does not.

Consider this passage: "Yuppies are easy to spot. They are young, and most are white. Early in the morning they may be seen walking their dogs, scooping up behind them, sometimes in business attire. Young women, often wearing suits and carrying briefcases, march along in sneakers...Whereas the old-time Villagers actively encouraged diversity, the Yuppies seem uncomfortable with it, especially with class heterogeneity."

When one forswears the particular individual for the social type, one is too often left with vague and blurry strokes like these.


* * *

In Philadelphia Fire, John Edgar Wideman is working much the same geographical and socio-political territory. Not only is his novel set in Philadelphia, but MOVE -- which figures pseudonymously in Anderson's work -- is ostensibly at the center of Wideman's work.

The MOVE story offers compelling raw material for a novelist seeking to illuminate the American black experience. On May 13,1985, after bullets, water cannons, and high explosives failed to dislodge armed members of a group which had defied police orders to vacate 6221 Osage Avenue, Philadelphia's black Mayor W. Wilson Goode approved an aerial attack. From a helicopter, an incendiary bomb was dropped on the building. The fire was intended only to drive the occupants into the street, but it got out of hand. Before the day was done, 53 houses in the stable black working-class neighborhood were destroyed, 262 people left homeless, and eleven members of MOVE -- six adults and five children -- were dead.

The story is replete with ironies. For Mayor Goode's miscalculation had a devastating effect on his personal authority and eventually helped undermine his administration. At this writing, our fifth-largest city is on the brink of insolvency and administrative chaos -- and many observers trace its decline to that night when the fires began to burn in West Philadelphia.

Perhaps the best-known male black writer practicing in America today, Wideman seemed ideally equipped to write this book. A native of Pennsylvania, who grew up in a Pittsburgh neighborhood not unlike West Philadelphia, he had demonstrated exceptional skill at evoking black life both in fiction (notably in his Homewood trilogy) and in non-fiction (Brothers and Keepers). His rich, incantatory style seemed wonderfully suited to the brooding tragedy of the MOVE story.

Moreover, the pain of this tale is amply matched by the pain of John Wideman's own life. Brothers and Keepers recounts part of it -- the tale of two brothers, one destined to reap many of America's glittering prizes, the other doomed to play out America's worst fears about black men.

John Wideman rose from his working-class childhood to win a scholarship at the University of Pennsylvania, where he was Phi Beta Kappa and basketball captain; earned a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford, the second American black to do so; then returned to marry a white woman, gain tenure at the University of Wyoming, and win wide recognition for his writing, capped in 1984 by the PEN/Faulkner Award.

Meanwhile, his younger brother, Robby, drifted into the streets, took up drugs and petty crime, and ultimately participated in an armed robbery during which a man was killed. Although one of his confederates pulled the trigger, Robby was convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment without parole. Brothers and Keepers, published in 1984, powerfully evoked the diverging parabolas of these lives, and especially John's guilt and rage at their contrasting fates.

Then, scarcely two years later, John's second son, sixteen-year-old Jake, plunged a hunting knife into the chest of a sleeping bunkmate on a camp outing to Flagstaff, Arizona, stole a counselor's rented car and became a fugitive for eight days until he turned himself in. Jake not only confessed to the 1986 killing but volunteered that he had committed another murder, two years before, at age fifteen. He has been convicted of first-degree murder and is serving a life term in prison.

In Brothers and Keepers, John Wideman wondered about good seeds and bad seeds. Now -- as his son recapitulated his brother's spectacular descent -- the fiery apocalypse of the MOVE saga seemed to echo the recurring chaos of his family saga.

The result is a vivid but curious book, in which the public conflagration is finally consumed by the private fires raging in the author's head. Much of the work is plainly autobiographical. The protagonist, Cudjoe, is a Pennsylvania black writer who has long been in exile from his heritage, abandoning his neighborhood and his people, marrying a white woman, immersing himself in a remote middle-class meritocracy. As the novel opens he has fled to the Greek island of Mykonos where he reads about the only survivor of the fire on Osage Avenue, a young boy who had been seen running from the burning building -- not just a boy, but "a kid, with no clothes on screaming."

It is a riveting image, reminiscent of the famous photograph from the Vietnam War of a naked girl whose village had just been napalmed, running naked up a road. But, of course, the naked black boy in West Philadelphia stands more particularly for young black males, an endangered species in America these days, and most specifically for Robby Wideman, the lost brother, and Jake Wideman, the lost son. Which accounts for the obsessive character of Cudjoe's search: "He must find the child to be whole again."

If Elijah Anderson, the black sociologist, uses the essentially journalistic techniques of sociological "field work" to explore Philadelphia street life, so John Wideman, the black novelist, in his guise as Cudjoe, assumes the role of journalist ("a reporter covering a story in a foreign country") as he crisscrosses the city looking for the lost boy.

At times, one reaps the benefits of a shrewd observer attuned to the rhythms of those streets, as in the following scene after a pick-up basketball game. "You smell yourself if you've been playing. Cudjoe's in the cluster of men lounging around the bench in the middle of the court's open side. Night dries his skin. He feels darker, the color of a deep, purple bruise. He won't be able to walk tomorrow. Mostly players around the bench, men who've just finished the last game of the evening, each one relaxing in his own funk, cooling out, taking the game, beginning to turn it into stories."

When Wideman turns to the black mayor, and his self-serving aides, his are the shrewd perceptions of a man who knows the territory. Timbo, Cudjoe's friend, explains about his boss, the mayor: "He's realistic about power and politics and deals and compromise and doing his jig inside the system. He ain't about change. He's about hanging on long enough so some who ain't never tasted pie can have a bit before the whole shebang turns rotten. A simple, devious, practical man. A nice guy. Hey. He's my boss. Love the nigger. Treats me better than any white boy would."

But Wideman is not a journalist. He teases us with a mocking call for journalistic investigation and scholarly rigor. "What we need is realism, the naturalistic panorama of a cityscape unfolding. Demographics, statistics, objectivity... In time a separation (spelled in case you ever forgot, with a rat) between your own sorry self and the sorrows of the city could be effected."

But such a separation is impossible for a man grieving as deeply as Wideman. "Read the smoke again and again for what it says about me, my fate. The only truly interesting, engaging story anyone can tell me, after all. My fate."

Wideman is not the first to remind us that all great art is ultimately autobiography. "In all my writing," says Isaac Bashevis Singer, "I tell the story of my life, over and over again." Fair enough. And surely Wideman movingly evokes the private anguish of the alienated black intellectual.

That may be all he intended. But it seems to me there was an implicit promise here to tell us something, too, about the life of other black Americans, notably those caught up in the tragedy of MOVE. Yet if one seeks the roots and ramifications of MOVE -- or of black communities like West Philadelphia -- one gets scant pickings here, little more than a reductionist reinterpretation of The Tempest: that it was all about "colonialism, imperialism, recidivism, the royal fucking over of weak by strong, colored by white..."

Finally, this tortured book throbs with John Wideman's pain. Given the events of the past few years, who can blame him for that? But the exquisite anguish of personal loss is not always the best lens through which to examine the pain of others.


* * *

Some of these same themes echo in Ze'ev Chafets's Devil's Night. Once again the author is an expatriate returning from afar to his native territory. And again what prompts his return is a disastrous fire, which, stirring apocalyptic visions, sets him off on a journalistic inquiry.

If Wideman fled black working-class Pennsylvania for cosmopolitan academia in, of all places, Wyoming, then Chafets fled his native Pontiac, Michigan, for Israel, where he became a rigorous conservative -- in the Israeli context -- as director of the Government Press Office for then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin.

He left America in August 1967, a few weeks after the Detroit riot. Chafets does not tells us here whether the two events had any connection. Since he was taking his junior year abroad from the University of Michigan the trip presumably had been arranged before the riots. (The Six Day War that spring, which reinforced American Jewish support for Israel, may have had more to do with his decision.)

Nor does Chafets tell us what effect the riots had on him, except to note that his Uncle Jack and Aunt Ruth, who ran a grocery store in a black neighborhood, found their store looted of everything except the "yorzeit" candles and a couple of boxes of matzohs, sold the store to a Syrian family, and got out of town. But that experience must have awakened vivid recollections of another event at that very store when Ze'ev -- his name was William then -- was only thirteen. His grandfather, Max, worked part-time with Jack and Ruth. One Saturday morning, shortly after Max turned seventy, two black men entered the store, pulled guns, and demanded money. Max gave it to them. Then, for no apparent reason, they pistol-whipped him to death. Not surprisingly, Ze'ev writes now, that event "gave a new dimension to my feelings about blacks."

But those feelings are not so easy to characterize. He had grown up in a conventionally "liberal" Jewish household. His parents, he suggests, had no special feeling about blacks, but from an early age William had been fascinated by the black world. "In the gray monotony of a Michigan car-town they seemed like vivid, foreign strangers. I can still remember my earliest glimpses of the black section of town, ripe with intimations of exotic vitality and mystery." He hung out on the Corner, a particularly lively, raunchy intersection of poolrooms and laughing women; listened to rhythm and blues radio stations out of Detroit, insisted on being Elgin Baylor in neighborhood basketball games, and traded a Ted Williams baseball card for Willie Mays even up.

And it was after black men beat Max to death that William met Charles, a young black kid, wiry and fierce, who could "dance cooler, talk sweeter, fight tougher and make love to more girls than anyone" William Chafets had ever met. Clearly his earlier fascination with the black world had not eroded after Max's death and Charles came to personify all that black exotica. Gradually Charles became William's mentor on the street. But then at the University of Michigan, Charles turns up as a fugitive from the army and, when William takes him in, responds by stealing his only suit and his television set. William "understands" the forces which drove Charles to do that to him, but promptly dismisses him from his life.

As I read all this I thought I knew what was coming. William -- now transformed into Ze'ev -- was coming back to Detroit to shuck off his naive views of the black world as once he had his American citizenship, and give us a stern Likud-ian warning about black savagery -- symbolized by the burnings of Devil's Night.

That is not the book Chafets has written. To be sure, he gives us plenty that is bleak and terrifying about contemporary Detroit. He tells the story of John Aboud, one of the many Chaldean or Arab shopkeepers who have taken over from the Jews in Detroit's black neighborhoods. Since 1960, Chafets tells us, some one hundred of these shopkeepers have been murdered in their stores. Six of them were related to John Aboud.

In terse prose, Chafets tells of an evening he spent with the Abouds at their Tailwind Grocery. The family works behind a thick shield of bullet-resistant glass. When they come out from behind it they wear bulletproof vests. On the shelf behind the counter they keep a small arsenal: a .44 Magnum, a 9-millimeter pistol, and a couple of AR15 semiautomatic assault rifles. When they capture shoplifters, as they frequently do, they take them down to the basement, handcuff them to a metal post, and -- legend has it -- let the family Doberman strain within inches of their genitals. "At the end of the evening we come down, beat their ass, and send them home," Aboud says.

"This isn't even a jungle," John Aboud's brother Mike says, "it's barbaric." One can't argue with that.

But Chafets moves with astonishing ease across racial lines. One of the most affecting passages in this book is a long interview with Carrie Baker (apparently the only pseudonym in this relentlessly particularized book), an unwed welfare mother of three whose children include Bev, a rebellious teen-age daughter who had lived in crack houses, and a small boy who had spent half his life in foster homes. "The conventional wisdom," Chafets writes, "is that such people are irresponsible at best, and possibly evil. But the truth, it seemed to me, was more banal. Bev was a sweet, confused adolescent girl, her mother, a bright, harassed woman with no money and no resources to fall back on. I wondered if, in similar circumstances, I could have done better -- and I wasn't sure."

Chafets presents a wickedly satirical portrait of Detroit's cynical black Mayor Coleman Young, but he is even tougher on the self-indulgent whites of the suburbs who have fled Detroit in record numbers.

What I liked about this book was that, unlike Anderson's and Wideman's, it was almost always surprising. I never quite knew what Chafets was going to tell me, and that, I sensed, was because Chafets himself didn't know. He is not a professional reporter. Beneath all his reportorial zeal, I still suspect, lurks something of an ideologue. And yet he has done a true job of reporting here, roaming the city with energy, talking with all sorts of people of both races, and telling us what he found with a striking absence of special pleading.

I confess a bit of chagrin in concluding that this Jewish expatriate has written more compellingly than two black Americans about our nation's racial cauldron. It may be further evidence of the multiple chasms which still yawn in our land that I responded more to the white voice than to the two black voices. But despite strong early reservations, Chafets earned my grudging respect. Somehow his brand of personal journalism worked for me in a way that Anderson's participant observation and Wideman's self-referential metafiction simply did not. Had he told this same story in a seamless, third-person narrative, I might have bristled with skepticism. I trusted Devil's Night precisely because its author's tale was so personal, because he took me with him on his journey, introduced me to his sources, showed me his evidence, made me feel his mounting horror and astonishment in all its richly human specificity.

One of the few false notes in Devil's Night comes at the end when Ze'ev arranges a reconciliation with Charles at his neat little frame house near the Pontiac Silverdome. They sit on a picnic bench in a freshly-mowed backyard, sipping bourbon out of tall glasses, and Charles tells him how he came back from the brink. "You've done fine, haven't you Charles," says Ze'ev. "Yes I have, Bill. It took me some time and it hasn't been easy, but yeah, god-dammit, thank god, I've made it over."

This is too easy by half. Its cloying sentimentality is quite unlike anything else Chafets gives us, as if he felt a need to end Devil's Night on a note of hope.

The ending notwithstanding, this is not a hopeful book. It shouldn't be. There is not a lot of hope in the heart of our major cities these days. But, strangely enough, it left me with another kind of hope -- that my craft of journalism, with all its obfuscations and simplicities, still has the capacity to tell something very close to the truth.

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