Twenty-five years after leaving Detroit to establish his life and career in Denver, David Halpert finds himself back at square one. His marriage has crumbled, he has endured a personal tragedy, and now he’s back in Detroit with his elderly parents. David’s mother has been diagnosed with dementia and can no longer take care of herself, so David has moved back to his troubled hometown to help his father.
One morning soon after his arrival, he opens the paper and sees an article announcing the limited details surrounding a murder. The picture shows a black retired FBI officer and a white woman who had been gunned down in a seedy part of town. No one could figure out why a former FBI officer with years of field experience would be in that part of town at night, and no one initially knew his relationship to the white woman who was with him. But David knew immediately: Natalie was his ex-girlfriend, and the man she was with was her half-brother, Dirk.
Reaching out to Natalie’s family to offer his condolences, David forms a quick bond with Natalie’s sister, Caroline, who has flown in from LA for the funeral. Both are unhappy with their lives and quickly discover that they have a lot in common. As their fledgling relationship grows, the plot finally begins to unfold.
Say Nice Things About Detroit has a lot going on. Not only does it jump back and forth via flashbacks, it constantly shifts its point of view. There are about four characters whose voices get the most airtime, and a few more whose who make a one-time appearance then fade into the background. It was confusing and slightly annoying to keep track of at first, but you eventually get the hang of it.
Ultimately, the cacophony of voices brings a fullness to the novel. David Halpert may have been from Detroit, but as a white, middle-class man, he had the opportunity leave for a better education and career opportunities; this allows him to return and find work relatively quickly at a law firm. He’s not well-off, but he’s faring far better than most of the city.
Meanwhile, through Dirk readers get to see another side of Detroit’s inhabitants. He had always worked hard and was living a middle class lifestyle in a black neighborhood before he was murdered, as well as mentoring a troubled young teen that everyone has long given up on, but he had a difficult life growing up. As the only child of a black father and white mother whose relationship was short-lived, Dirk was sent to live with his father and grew up not really knowing the white side of his family; his parents figured it would be easier that way, considering the era. Natalie, his half-sister who was killed alongside him, was the only member of his family he had any real connection with, and even then, they didn’t really know each other until they were adults.
Say Nice Things About Detroit is a about love, loss, and bittersweet second chances, but it’s also a raw ode to a city struggling to rise from decades of racial tension, violence, and poverty. It’s not a perfect book, but it is one that you will lose yourself in.
Say Nice Things About Detroit was released on July 2, 2012 by W. W. Norton & Company.