Where we danced
by Judith Perrignon
Shores, 354 p., € 20
It is the long story of an old industrial Eldorado, built by Judith Perrignon over nearly a century. From the frenzied power of the New World’s automotive capital, Detroit, Michigan, to its decay, when “ men collapsed with the city ”. Before getting up slowly, against a backdrop of ashes, deaths and disillusions. The reader finds himself, in turn, in the skin of several characters, in particular that of two black cops – Ira, elite cop, and Sarah -, natives of this city.
They roam deserted streets, drawing up, by dint of patrolling, an inventory of what has disappeared. Sarah is determined to unravel the mystery of the corpse of a man without identity found in one of the dark corners of Detroit. He dragged his gaiters through the remnants of the Brewster Project, high-rise social housing for blacks built after the “great depression.”
From the Brewster Project and its neighborhood will emerge in the 1970s Motown, this record label which revolutionized popular music, reveals Stevie Wonder (at 12 years old), the future Diana Ross and some of her friends whom she dumped on the way to glory. On these offspring, black in addition, rested the hope and the promise to radiate the other pride of Detroit.
The “Cradle of the modern world which invented the car” was also the crucible of the exploitation of the working class which was to tip over into abandonment, destruction, rejection. Detroit, bankrupt, is now administered by a “manager”, liquidation plan in hand, who does not hide his contempt for this wreckage of the American dream. The Whites fled the city in decline. Only blacks remained, cops and thugs from the same neighborhood, old men haunted by the memory of happy days, inhabitants plagued by drugs and trafficking.
This laminated city, a playground for birds of prey, attracts voyeurs who come to smell the scent of the ruins. Factories closed, towers emptied, soon destroyed, giant ghosts of vanished euphoria, wide avenues given over to all kinds of zombies, sociopaths, survivors and resistance fighters. America is watching the sinking of this failed symbol from afar.
No doubt the unknown was sucked in, then swallowed by this deadly abyss. Sarah’s quest constantly sends her back to the strange fate of this economic lighthouse which no longer illuminates anything. She slowly fell in love with Jeff, who works at the Detroit Institute of Art, an island preserved in this archipelago of decay.
What remains of this city of superlatives? Huge buildings, with broken windows, which only welcome drafts. The title, Where we danced, refers to the majestic Graystone Ballroom, where the Motown foals began, replaced by a McDonald’s where the miserable of today stuff themselves with cheeseburgers and greasy fries, letting alcohol finish the dirty work.
“Maybe this town is just an old story, an old-fashioned American novel, and I’m in it, ready to be crushed when we close it again”, Ira sighs. Like Sarah, her heroine, determined to explore the enigma of this dead man torn from the rubble of this sinking city, Judith Perrignon makes this eventful exploration of Detroit a personal matter.