In Fournier’s thoughtful debut novel, a young man comes of age in the tense atmosphere of a city teetering on the edge of chaos.
Jake Malone, a white college kid in suburban Detroit in 1967, gets kicked out of school and decides to earn a little money to get a car of his own. He ends up at Zug Island, a steelworking plant that’s a world away from his suburban home. When he first sees the place, it reminds Jake of Dante’s Inferno, but he doesn’t know yet how literal that perception will become. After a tense fight at the plant, he’s befriended by Theo Semple, an African-American man who came to Detroit for better wages but left a family and a tragic history back in the South. In their spare time, Jake and Theo hit the town seeking adventures. As the story unfolds, what they find is eye-opening for Jake—from prostitution and police brutality on the streets of Detroit to the casual racism found in the all-white suburbs. The racial tension builds, until one day it explodes in riots that turn Detroit into an inferno. Told from Jake’s perspective, the short novel—part journey through hell, part social document, part adventure story—depicts his struggles with race and class pressure. Fournier reveals what life was like not only on Zug Island, but also on the streets of Detroit, in its white suburbs and in white and black churches. Readers may wish the author had spent more time in some of the scenes, particularly the riots, which are described from a distance. The Vietnam War is mentioned, but its impact is left unexplored. Also, at times, Fournier steps back from the story to fill in general history that is illuminating, even though it breaks the narrative flow. On the whole, however, the novel is tightly written with a dramatic plot, well-rounded characters and clear insights into social history.
An engaging, dynamic story that grapples intelligently with themes of race, class and morality.