A wayward academic tries to make a fresh start emotionally and professionally in economically devastated Detroit.
Greg “Marny” Marnier, the narrator of this sophisticated if earnest novel, is a Yale grad who’s spent his post-college career in a go-nowhere adjunct teaching gig in Wales. At a class reunion he reconnects with Robert, a wealthy investor who invites him to return stateside to take part in Starting-From-Scratch-in-America, a scheme to fix up houses on 600 acres of abandoned Detroit land investors have purchased. As a history teacher, Marny can’t avoid thinking in pioneer metaphors: this “New Jamestown” attracts a pell-mell batch of hippies, tea partiers, do-gooders, and folks just eager to live off the grid. But while the effort attracts national attention—President Barack Obama drops in for a visit and Marny gets roped into a pickup basketball game with him—the (mostly black) locals tend to see the (mostly white) migrants as an occupying force. Marny is a likable if naïve bridge-builder, finding common ground with Nolan, a tough-talking single dad, and pursuing a relationship with Gloria, a schoolteacher. But it gives nothing away to say that Starting-From-Scratch-in-America doesn’t quite work out as planned, and the novel echoes Marny’s disappointment that a community with a clean slate couldn’t shrug off its old baggage about economics and race. Indeed, Markovits implies that the bonds that hold together communities are frustratingly weak (the first sign the colony is collapsing involves a stolen iPhone). Markovits gamely works to make this a realistic and nuanced portrait of modern-day Detroit while keeping the plot moving with some humor and romance, and he’s careful not to make the city’s problems simplistically black and white. But the story does bog down in a mass of representative characters.
An overly busy exploration of white privilege and new money colliding with the old economy.