A deep-running portrait of growing up in Detroit during the 1970s and 80s.
Born in 1973, Clemens was already an anachronism in his youth: white, from a working class family and living in a city that wasn’t— where Manifest Destiny ran in reverse, where even Motown left Motown. Why his family continued to abide south of Eight Mile Road is not clearly understood by Clemens, just as many things regarding the place are not understood, but to Clemens’ everlasting credit, he wants to learn. He delves into literature, for one, from James Baldwin to Ralph Ellison, James Joyce to William Faulkner. They profoundly influence his sense of self, yet they won’t nearly have the impact of his father: a plain-speaking man given to worshipping at the altar of the internal combustion engine, one who impresses on his son the value of integrity, to get things right, meet your responsibilities daily, apply common sense (including starting up the dragster at 3 a.m.—all part of his charm). His mother, too, will be there to polish a lens through which Clemens can see himself clearly, for he is a man now warring with himself: “a racist, perhaps, but probably not one full of shit.” Not at all full of shit, and not a racist either; Clemens doesn’t traffick in received opinions. If he perceives Detroit as hopeless, at least Clemens doesn’t tut-tut from afar; crime, corruption, the pure lack of common sense—the city has scoured him at first hand. He is not impressed enough with humanity in general to elevate any race, nor will he be abased by one. At one point, as Clemens pursues an advanced degree in literature, he finds himself increasingly drawn to expression over content, after years of striving to learn and understand. At least he doesn’t make that mistake here.
If Detroit is grim and fraught, it is in its tensions that Clemens finds the material to make his memoir thrum like his father’s dragster.