Detroit-set novel finds hope among the hopeless

Author Christopher Hebert to read from ‘Angels of Detroit’ on Monday at Literati Bookstore in Ann Arbor

Greg Tasker
The Detroit News

For Christopher Hebert, the long road to writing his novel about a cast of characters struggling to create better lives in the desolate landscape of Detroit began decades ago during his boyhood in Syracuse, New York, an urban setting also in decline, its glory days long past.

“Angels of Detroit” was published this summer.

“I had lots of car rides with my father pointing out things that use to be there,” recalls Hebert, whose “Angels of Detroit” (Bloomsbury USA, 2016) was published this summer. “There were all these things that weren’t there anymore. I grew up feeling haunted by the place; there was this sense that the city’s glory days had passed, and the people living there were still living in the past.”

It’s a theme Hebert encountered again in St. Louis, where he moved after college in southwestern Ohio, and again when he relocated to Ann Arbor to attend graduate school at the University of Michigan and began exploring the neighborhoods and the downtown core of Detroit.

“It’s all so weird. I inadvertently found myself on a tour of the Rust Belt,” he says. “Shortly after I moved to Ann Arbor, I started going to Detroit. The landscape was striking. I recognized the phenomenon. It was even more drastic. There was more emptiness. It was rough.”

“Angels in Detroit” explores characters living in a “city of one hundred forty square miles, a third of it abandoned, the emptiness combined larger than the entire city of San Francisco. Boston. Manhattan.” The characters, ranging from activists trying to save the city to a confused idealist who finds himself in debt to a human trafficker to a great-grandmother tending a community garden in oil-soaked patch, interact in “a landscape full of monuments to loss and oblivion.” Their visions for the city are on a collision course.

“What does it mean to live in a place where there is no hope,” he asks.

Chris Hebert attended graduate school at the University of Michigan.

Hebert, 41, who now teaches fiction writing at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, will read from “Angels of Detroit” on Monday at Literati Bookstore in Ann Arbor. He will be joined by his wife, Margaret Lazarus Dean, who will read from her book, “Leaving Orbit: Notes from the Last Days of American Spaceflight” (Graywolf Press, 2015). The visit is a homecoming for the couple; Dean is also a U-M graduate.

The Wall Street Journal said “Mr. Hebert’s Detroit is an eerie and cinematic ghost town.” Publishers Weekly described Hebert’s second novel (after “The Boiling Season”) as “a gritty portrayal of Detroit as a crumbling industrial city that has become an economic and social wasteland, sparsely populated by unfortunate people who have nowhere else to go.”

Sixteen years in the writing, Hebert’s novel shifted from a composite of decaying urban centers to a focus on Detroit, a culmination of his frequent exploration of the city’s neighborhoods to his role as a regional fiction editor at the University of Michigan Press, where he also oversaw the publication of books about the city’s music history.

“The more informed I became about Detroit, more and more the book shifted and became about Detroit,” he says. “It’s difficult material that I wanted to treat fairly. There are a lot of things that could go wrong, and I wanted to be respectful of people and place. It had to take as along as it did in retrospect.”

His writing began during some of the city’s darkest days, a downtown of empty towers and neighborhoods of dilapidated and burned-out houses. As he continued writing, the city’s landscape changed, abandoned neighborhoods transformed into prairies and community gardens, a resurgent downtown with new stadiums, restaurants and bars. He finished the novel in 2015.

“Every week you hear about new things happening in Detroit. Positive things are going on in pockets of the city, but there are still questions about the people who live there,” he says. “The landscape has changed, but the questions are the same: How does all this affect the lives of poor people, the people who have been left behind? It’s complicated stuff.”

None of the characters are based on real people. Instead, Hebert has drawn them to represent perspectives he thought should be included in a story about Detroit. One character, a corporate executive who believe she is doing right by the city she remembers at its prime, for example, reflects those who frequently reminisce about their hometown’s glory days.

“The one difference between Syracuse and Detroit is race. Syracuse didn’t have the race issue,” he says.

The great-grandmother working at community garden evokes those who have pushed to transform abandoned urban centers into farmland.

“These are not specific, real people,” he explains. “ I would write the story and there would be a piece missing. I would read about the early years of urban farming and think where does that fit in? A lot of readers have latched onto the characters I added late in the day. That could be a reflection of my changing feelings about what I was writing and about the changes in Detroit. It was sort of a moving target.”

While toiling on his novel, Hebert found inspiration in other urban-themed fiction, including Joyce Carol Oates’ novel “Them,” about Detroit leading up to the 1967 riots, and Jonathon Frantz’s “The Twenty-Seventh City,” his debut novel about the fall of St. Louis.

Hebert struggled to find a title for his book, initially called “Detroit,” which made him uncomfortable.

“It made me feel like I wrote the entire story of Detroit, which I hadn’t,” he says. “I wrote my story of Detroit.”

He found his title in the poem, “The Angels of Detroit,” by Philip Levine, who grew up in industrial Detroit.

“I felt like that was what the book was really about,” he says.

Hebert has been surprised by reader and reviewer reactions.

“The most interesting thing for me is its reception,” he says. “A lot of reviews have talked about it as a novel of hope, a lot of the characters who are struggling in a lot of ways to make lives better, who are the angels of the story. There have been reviews and readers who have talked about it as apocalypse.”

“I think it has a lot to do with your temperament, whether you’re optimistic or pessimistic about change,” he adds.

For his part, Hebert hopes readers embrace the complexities of a city in transition.

“I hope they think about these difficult questions. There is a lot of debate about people being left behind. For me, it’s partly a book about people being left behind. That intrigued me as a writer and its not usually the stuff of literature, but it raises important and difficult questions.”

Greg Tasker is a Metro Detroit freelance writer.

Christopher Hebert with Margaret Lazarus Dean

‘Angels of Detroit’

7 p.m. Monday

Literati Bookstore

124 E. Washington St., Ann Arbor

(734) 585-5567