“Moving in Tandem Across the City”: Susan Messer, Grand River and Joy

I have posted here a couple of times before about books by people I know. It always feels a bit risky, though I don’t know why it is, really: it isn’t as if authors I don’t know personally aren’t also actual people with their own ideas and feelings! Perhaps it’s because people I know are more likely to read what I say and also, maybe, more likely to care if I’m not seeing the book as they did or hoped–more likely to take my blind spots or criticisms personally.

In one sense, I don’t know Susan Messer: we have never met face to face. But Susan has read and commented here for some time, and through the exchanges we’ve had, I do feel as if we know each other at least as readers and thinkers. I have found her comments always very thoughtful and engaged and encouraging. Naturally, I was interested in knowing more about her!  So I snooped, of course, like any good citizen of the internet era, and one of the first things I found out was that she had published a novel, Grand River and Joy, which I have now finally read. I didn’t tell Susan ahead of time that I was going to–I figured that was better in case of the awkward, if unlikely, event that I didn’t much appreciate it. But I did like it–a lot–and so I’m going to go ahead and post some thoughts about it. I gave Susan a heads-up once I knew I would be writing about it, so she wouldn’t feel snuck up on.

I came to Grand River and Joy as an outsider to its particular contexts. It is a historical novel–more specifically, as we Victorianist types say, it’s a novel of the recent past: it’s set in Detroit just before, during, and after the 1967 riot (which, as one of her chapter headings points out, could also be interpreted as a rebellion). Though of course I know a few general things about American history during this period, I’m no expert on it, and I’m certainly no expert on Detroit, which is not a city that has previously figured at all in my imaginative landscape of America. One of the aspects of Grant River and Joy that I liked the most was the intensely local detail, which is really evocative of both time and place. The novel opens as Henry Levine drives downtown to the building that houses his shoe wholesale business as well as his black tenant, Curtis, and Curtis’s teenage son, Alvin:

It was Detroit, and by 1966, Grand River south of Joy was all concrete and brick, with barely a tree or shrub, barely a patch of grass.

Joy Road – now there was a misnomer. That stretch had broken windows and traffic snarls, and grown men with nothing to do during the day. Up and down these broad streets, buses belched clouds of black smoke as they roared past the metal-grated building faces. And as if inviting trouble, Levine’s was the only business along the stretch that lacked one of those grates.

That first day in the novel, Hallowe’en 1966, Harry opens the business to find that trouble has accepted the invitation: scrawled in soap across his front windows are the words “Honky Jew boy“. Looking for the supplies to clean away the slur, Harry discovers that a room in his basement has been turned into a kind of clubhouse, with chairs, ashtrays, a phone, and a stash of books and papers including “a narrow pamphlet with big hand-lettered words. ‘Black Panther Party Platform: What We Want; What We Believe.'” Harry rightly guesses that it’s Alvin who has been using the space: “these were his things, and this was what he read.” He also suspects that Alvin and his friends Otis and Wendell are responsible for the slur, but he intervenes (to the disgust of his fellow Jewish business owners) when the cops start hassling them.

This near-confrontation and Harry’s well-meaning attempts at appeasement presents in microcosm the novel’s central tensions, which are not just between blacks and Jews but between individual identities and group allegiances, between narrowly-defined protective self-interest and the desire to reach out and make connections, and, crucially, between staying put and moving away. The times, and the neighborhoods, are changing, and the novel delicately but sharply scrutinizes the discomfort of a community well aware of its own legacy of discrimination and suffering as it rationalizes its own prejudices. ” ‘I don’t think it’s the skin color,'” says a young woman at the meeting of the Detroit Council of Jewish Women where Harry’s wife Ruth makes a presentation on “white flight:”

‘It’s the class differences, the worry that schools will be compromised if people don’t have the same values. The schools are the key for most families. They are for me.’ Her friends nodded.

But of course it’s about skin color: out on the street, when the neighbors talk, “[e]veryone had stories about the schwarze.”

It’s both a tense time and a dishonest time, and in this context conciliatory gestures are hardly guaranteed to be either welcome or successful: admirably, the novel offers no simplistic idealism about what it might take for everyone just to get along, no neat parable of cooperation. Suspicion and hostility are not just individual habits or traits, after all: they have historical, systemic causes, and good intentions are as likely to reveal as to heal fissures. “Leave the boys alone,” Harry tells the officer who’s hassling Alvin and his friends. “We’re not boys,” says Wendell  after the cop car drives away.

As this awkward, necessary correction emphasizes, Harry’s no hero: he is not a moral benchmark, not a visionary. He’s just a well-meaning guy, unhappy about the hostilities intensifying around him, uncomfortably aware of his own suppressed racist reactions, wishing he could somehow say or do the right thing to create a little more trust, a little less suspicion. One idea he gets is to donate the collection of bicycles that he and his daughter Joanna have salvaged and restored to the children in “the projects.” They borrow a truck, load up the bikes, and drive to “the stretch on Eight Mile, not far from their own home, which had once been an army barracks, and was now one of the few places on the north-west side where Negroes lived, represented as a solid black band on the census maps, and recently the focus of the urban renewal movement. The projects.” They have driven past often before, but never pulled over. Now they arrive on this errand of … what? charity? generosity? patronage? friendship? Is it a nice thing to do, or an insulting one? “To have some white guy drive in and stand on a corner, giving stuff away?” asks his daughter Lena skeptically, hearing his plan. “And something valuable, like a bike? Wouldn’t you wonder what the trick was?” “There’s no trick,” Harry replies, and there isn’t, but it is an odd gesture nonetheless, and as Lena expects, it’s met with something besides the simple happiness Harry seems to imagine. “What are you? Santa Claus or something?” he’s asked. It’s not easy, as it turns out, to give bikes way, not as simple as Joanna tells herself as she tries to get over her discomfort and get out of the truck: “Bikes were for riding,” she thinks, but it’s not just about that, and the mixed responses they get to their gifts refuse easy answers to what you should or can give, what you should or can take. You certainly can’t do much, single-handedly, about a long history of misunderstanding and injustice and anger. Does that mean you shouldn’t try?

The closest we get to an answer about what might be constructive arises from a long conversation between Harry and Curtis as they watch over the building’s malfunctioning boiler–a nicely handled symbol for the simmering conflict in the city around them. It starts out badly, with tension and resentment, and in fact Harry almost leaves, almost gives up on understanding or caring: “They wanted to determine their own destiny, or whatever that first point on the Black Panther program was, let them start with the heat in their own home.” But he goes back, and he and Curtis talk all night, first exchanging stories, “the kind men tell, about things they’ve done, and things that have happened.” Then, as they start drinking, they get looser and more daringly honest, until it becomes, Harry observes, a kind of “teach-in,” about racial attitudes and slurs and suspicions and jokes, the things that usually are said only about, not to, the other. “No one knows what to call your people anymore,” Harry says to Curtis. “Negro, black, colored?” “You only need the label when you’re talking about me,” Curtis responds. “It’s the talking to me that matters.Curtis and Harry don’t reach any epiphanies –for one thing, by the time morning comes they’re too drunk to make much sense, and Alvin, making his way down to the boiler room to see what’s happened, finds them (to his disgust and anger) wrestling in sodden hilarity on the floor. That’s hardly the high road to racial harmony, and yet it seems a lot better than the alternatives we see, from hostility politely masked to combustible violence. Man to man, face to face, talking to each other: what else is there, really, that two individual men can do?

After the riots Harry returns to his building at Grand River and Joy and (in an elegant parallel to the opening scene) finds writing, once again, on his window, but this time, it says “Soul brother.” On the one hand, this message is the encouraging fruit of Harry’s good will, a tangible marker of some hoped-for reconciliation. Because of it, we infer, Harry’s building still stands, the front window unbroken, though “a whole stretch of charred buildings lay in ruins – Bernie’s place, Stan’s.” But again, good will does not make everything come right: though in the post-riot chaos he has no market for his inventory and the business is doomed, he can’t make an insurance claim as “he had no ‘quantifiable loss,’ no police or fire report to attach, no photos of gaping holes in walls, of inventory strewn in streets. No smoldering ruins for the insurance examiner to survey, shaking his head, making notes.” “How is it,” Ruth asks, “that all the business owners we know are coming out of this with something?” But for Harry, there’s nothing.

Or, rather, not nothing, because for him too, the riot has been a cataclysm and, in an unexpected way, a catalyst for change. Trying to get to his building before normalcy has been restored, Harry ends up accidentally at an orthodox shul, where during the prayers, he reflects on his life and wishes to be free of the business, which was never his vocation but his inheritance from his father:

Deep within the privacy of his tallis tent, he saw that the horror that had seized the city could release him. It could open his life, push him out, tell him go, be, do.

He hoped, not that it would survive, but that it would burn–which is why when it doesn’t, it doesn’t feel quite like a blessing. When the business collapses, it feels freeing, rather than sad, as he is finally liberated to go, be, do something else, to be who he is.

I was surprised to learn, in the final section, that he and Ruth move to the suburbs after all.

There are other aspects to the novel, other incidents, worth discussing (Ruth’s session with the Detroit Council of Jewish Women, for instance, which is a great microcosmic survey of the situation as well as a bit of keen satire, or the section on the “riot/rebellion” itself, which incorporates Alvin’s experiences in the midst of the turbulence). But I think this post has gotten long enough. Susan, I hope you think I’ve read your book reasonably well! I learned a lot from it, and really enjoyed it too.

 

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3 Responses to “Moving in Tandem Across the City”: Susan Messer, Grand River and Joy

  1. Susan Messer says:

    Rohan,
    From one good citizen of the Internet to another, I learned early this morning, via Google Alerts, that you had posted this review. So although Sunday morning is my writing time, and I try not to let anything interrupt, I had to come right over.
    It’s an honor indeed to have one’s work taken seriously by someone I admire. So, thank you for that indeed. But as much as it’s an honor, it can also be an experience of vulnerability to have my work discussed. Thanks to your post and your openness, however, I see that this is or can be an experience of vulnerability for you as well–something that never before occurred to me might occur on the critic’s side. A lot to think about.
    I do feel that you picked up on the themes/ideas/feelings that are most core to the book, and I was particularly pleased to see you mention identities and the tensions between them. When I presented my novel to the parents and students at University of Michigan (the honors college chose it as their summer reading book for freshman), I discussed it as a book about identities–starting on Halloween, a day when we ask “what are you going to BE?” Then I talked about the various identities of the main characters (Harry: man, white man, Jew, Detroiter, business owner, landlord, husband, father, son–all of which are rattled or question or transformed in the course of the novel).
    A lot more to say, of course, but this is a wonderfully thoughtful review, and I am glad I found my way to you a year or more ago via one of the many mysterious paths the Internet offers to its citizens.

  2. Zev Davis says:

    Susan,

    I recall reading about the novel in the Forum. As a Detroit, long gone from my “old sod” as it were, I have fond memories of the the section of town, where I grew up. I heard of Jews living “that far” off of Joy Road, but I didn’t know anybody who lived there. We lived closer in, towards Davison, along the stretch that started at Linwood, down a little below Livernois. My grandparents lived near Linwood, and we lived a few blocks off of Livernois in what might have considered “out of the neighborhood”, except for Oakman Boulevard and Ewald Circle.

    My parents moved after I graduated from high school in ’61. The neighborhood the other side of the Six Mile was still “Jewish”, but they moved to Oak Park. Without going into detail. Oak Park was a catastrophe for me, and I found myself returning to the city regularly. I had to get married, bring children into the world, and then . . . I became part of that community, and I still am, and still a “Detroit Boy”.

    For all sorts of interesting reasons, my attempts at fiction didn’t work out well. Rather, I wrote poems. After a long time of writing, I feel confidant enough to come up with a chapbook, of current work. Some of it deals with Detroit. If I may, allow me share two poems that will appear in the collection, both deal with two places, one the corner where the Avalon Theater was located, and the other a memory of a long walk from the campus to Greektown. You have my E-mail address is d2343 at 012.net.il. If you want to comment, feel free. The other poems in the collection deal with other descriptions.

    AVALON

    Here King Arthur was Jewish, and Guinevere, his loving wife,
    bought her chickens at the lot kitty corner on Davison
    every Thursday, took it to the kosher slaughterer
    flicked it, salted it, like the good Jewish wife
    she was. Day in day out

    her husband served his customers, faithfully,
    as God ordained him, and . . . on the Holy Sabbath,
    they ushered in the Sabbath Queen.
    No ordinary place this

    on Saturday afternoon, children stood in line
    with nickels and dimes, enough
    for a double feature and bag of popcorn. Later
    that night, dressed to the nines, men and their ladies
    sat down in the Avalon to watch spectacles
    on the silver screen . . . Still their souls

    found respite across the street, renewed themselves
    in prayer, accounting for their deeds on High
    Holy Days, recalling how they once took
    the savings of This World here, now speaking
    to God to redeem them, promising to keep
    His laws, to study them, and they did
    cross the street from the public school
    to the Hebrew School faithfully . . .

    no ordinary place this. Even dysfunction, a walk up the stairs
    from Avalon, fathers and mothers and their unruly children
    talked. Everything was where it was supposed to be, and everybody

    knew who they were, and where they belonged, yet
    up ahead of Woodrow Wilson the freeway
    plowed its way past Westminister, calling
    its people to Avalon, and freeway mavens understood

    it would reach Black Bottom. Soon enough
    the time came for Avalon, too, to buckle under
    unbecoming what it was, as it was
    no ordinary place this.

    Zev Davis

    GREEK COFFEE

    It was a summer night on Brooklyn Street
    In a simple wood frame house the other side
    of the Curling Club, not far from Warren Avenue,
    kitty corner from the Ford Freeway we sat
    on the porch thinking about a cup of coffee . . . Let’s go
    to Greektown, I said.

    It’s not far from here
    beyond the overpass, downtown.. My watch told me It
    was approaching midnight, the sky was clear blue. Nobody
    around to bother us. A perfect time for a walk

    to get a cup of coffee. Past the police station
    the billboards told us about the beautiful ladies inside
    who would dance with you as much as you wanted
    as long as paid up front. Across the street Father Divine
    held forth, then the all-night movies,

    after that the used book stores. Closer in the White Tower gleamed
    in the street lights with late blooming customers
    looking for a burger. Three giant steps and, Louis the Hatter
    offered his haberdashery in moonlight
    not far from the Fox. We were downtown, but
    still a way to go. Grand Circus Park was just down the street,

    we turned left to the East Side. The Steak House was lit and
    open for business. Crossing the street, on the other side, United Artists
    stood in all its glory, the Old Opera House, too. Bill’s Shoe Laces
    was the turn off for Monroe, and on to the restaurant. It

    was a few blocks down. The shops, the coffee houses, and
    Hellas. We drank our coffee. Inside, the juke box told this was
    not Michigan, nor was it
    Michigan along the street. The bakery was open, too, but
    we weren’t hungry. It was going on one o’clock . . .

    up Woodward Avenue . The strong sweet brew
    carried us, following the stars above
    that brought us back to Brooklyn Street.

    Zev Davis

  3. Rohan says:

    Thank you for your thoughtful response, Susan. I hadn’t thought about quite all those different levels of identity that Harry ends up rethinking. Very nice point about Hallowe’en!

    Zev, there is a very strong sense of place in those poems: thank you for sharing them here.

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