“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.