Anyone looking at the current state of affairs in the US–the violence, racism, poverty, and corruption–will ask, How did we get here? The answer presented in Donald Levin’s Savage City is that we’ve always been here.
Levin takes the reader to Detroit in the Spring of 1932. The Great Depression is in full swing, as is the Great Migration. Competing forces in organized crime–the Purple Gang, the Sicilian mob–are vying for control of the city’s vice economy. The Black Legion, a white nationalist spinoff of the Klu Klux Klan, is intent upon taking the country back from Blacks, Jews, and Communists. On March 7, 1932, in a hunger march from Detroit to the Ford Rouge plant, demonstrators will be met by armed goons and police, led by Harry Bennett, Henry Ford’s enforcer. There’s plenty of death in the streets of this novel.
In four meticulously plotted and interwoven narrative threads, Levin does the work of both a sociologist and an accomplished storyteller. To get a feel for the scope and narrative tension of this novel, think Martin Scorcese and Gangs of New York.
Levin’s gifts as a writer are everywhere on display. His impressive knowledge of Detroit geography, for example. More than once I went to Google Maps to find the exact street corner or neighborhood where action unfolds. His knowledge of key players in the power struggles of the period (see references at the end of the novel). His unerring feel for subcultures and ethnicities impressively in evidence in references to food, clothing, and the cadence and lingo of characters’ speech.
The detail is striking. In Paradise Alley and the Black Bottom district of Detroit, Levin shows us “the deeper woe of powerlessness.” We see a corrupt cop’s “slimy grin,” his “oily leer.” A Jewish kid “jiving down the sidewalk . . . jaunty, moving with a rolling gait to a rhythm only he can hear.” And Levin simply has an unfailing ear for talk on the street. “Hear anything about a Cadillac?” Clarence asks. “Might have did,” LaMont says coyly.”
The poison in the heart of the savage city is the poison in the heart of our savage country, incisively stated here, when a character “[imagines] himself in an apocalypse of blood, gunfire, and flames leading to the renewal of these United States as a white Christian nation.”
Donald Levin’s considerable gifts are impressively at work in his Martin Preuss mystery series, which follows private investigator Martin Preuss into the seamy side of contemporary Detroit. (His most recent novel in the series is In the House of the Night.) The taut plotting and razor sharp language of those novels is everywhere on display here, on the much broader stage.
Savage City is a wonderful book. More, Donald Levin. Give us more.