Online Edition: Spring 2004

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Detroit Tales

Jim Ray Daniels

Michigan State University Press ($22.95)

by Dustin Michael

Close to the beginning of "A Fistful of Yen," the sprawling goofball chop-socky spoof in the messy 1977 cult favorite The Kentucky Fried Movie, the evil kung-fu warlord is doling out punishments to his captives. A ragged man in chains is dragged from the dungeon. Unrepentant, he spits on the warlord's feet. "Send him to... Detroit!" commands the warlord sadistically, having sentenced another prisoner to death for a lesser offense only seconds before.

Jim Ray Daniels's Detroit Tales is a collection of short stories that does everything it can to confirm all of our greatest fears regarding the Motor City. It is a book that makes you uneasy, especially if you live in the Midwest; with each piece, the city becomes a little darker, a little more ominous, until it seems perched at the top of the country like a dilapidated gargoyle ready to fall on your car (which, ironically, probably rolled off an assembly line there). Each story leaves you feeling like you've just learned something nasty about the people in the house up the block.

These are stories of grime and metal, of characters whose sparks burn out in dingy corners like the fiery shards of steel that have been power-sanded off formless automotive parts by cold mechanical arms. They are stories of the Factory—of its slaves, its victims, and the people who exist beneath its shadow and lead leery lives. In short, these are modern tales of the dragon and the villagers.

Gerry, who narrates the opening story, "Islands," manages to do what almost every other character in the book only thinks about doing: He packs up and gets the hell out of Motor City before it guzzles up all his fuel. A reformed drug user turned civic-minded father figure, Gerry now picks crack vials out of the flowers he and his wife have planted on a traffic island. But once we've met Gerry—a man semi-devoted to turning his sketchy neighborhood around—Daniels bombards us with a menagerie of burn-outs, a line-up of suspects hauled in to answer the accusation, "Whose fault is it the neighborhood turned to crud in the first place?" There's Carl, the Mad Dog-swilling street tough who terrorizes the corner candy/liquor store; Kenny, the pot-bellied, Hog-riding 'Nam vet who crashes his high school-aged brother's block party and beats up his friends; and Ed, the dopey teenager who's too stoned on Christmas Eve to realize he's breaking his infirm mother's heart. The list of culprits goes on, each guilty of what seems to be Detroit's most common crime: being not bad enough to be incarcerated or chased out of town, but not good enough to make the city even a slightly better place to live.

There are no bold heroes in Detroit Tales, no steel-eyed archers to rise up, draw back, and shoot arrows to jam the grinding cogs of the motor dragon; these are tales of coping, of making do under the looming fog fists of the factories. The triumphs in them are subtle ones: The church deposes a minister for questionable sexual conduct with a minor but the minor's family stands behind him; a sullen loser gets over the crush he had on his dead cousin and brings himself to toss out her old album collection; a likeable gal who won't have sex with her slob boyfriend has a party and invites him and her promiscuous friend, and... well, that one's only a fleeting triumph. Often victory amounts to things staying the same as opposed to getting worse, but in Detroit, that's cause enough for celebration—so crack open a Pabst, call whatever relatives and friends haven't died horribly in factory accidents or drug overdoses, and count yourself lucky to have clocked-out another day.

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Spring 2004 Table of Contents