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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Say Nice Things About Detroit’

- - Friday, October 5, 2012

SAY NICE THINGS ABOUT DETROIT
By Scott Lasser
W.W. Norton, $25.95, 267 pages

Unlike Thomas Wolfe ("You Can't Go Home Again") or Robert Frost ("Home is the place where when you have to go there they have to take you in"), David Halpert, the protagonist of Scott Lasser's fourth novel, believes he can find true happiness by returning to the place of his birth. However, in David's case, that place is Detroit, which, by most if not all current accounts is, as a place to live, the metropolitan equivalent of toast.

"They fled," the opening paragraph informs us. "Tom Phillips to Orlando, Brady Johnson to Dallas, Jeff Lombardo to Chicago, Tim Forrester to L.A. David couldn't think of a single friend from high school who still lived in Detroit, or anywhere near it. David himself had moved to Denver, but now he was back."

But David's return was hardly inspired by nostalgia. He came back because his mother has dementia and his father needs help caring for her.

Good son David hadn't expected to stay, but on his first day back he picks up a newspaper and sees the face of Natalie, his former serious girlfriend, staring back at him from the front page. Natalie, who, like David, is white, has been killed, along with her black half brother Dirk, a retired FBI agent. Their bodies were found in his E-Class Mercedes-Benz, which was parked in a rough neighborhood.

David, who is well-acquainted with death, having lost his 12-year-old son four years ago, calls the family to offer his condolences. The phone is answered by Carolyn, Natalie's younger sister, who is back for the double funeral and who remembers him fondly.

David is divorced, and Carolyn might as well be, given the level of her ennui. They agree to meet for drinks, and then again for dinner, and, well, we're all adults here so you know what happens next.

Once Carolyn returns to Los Angeles, where she lives with her no-longer-satisfying husband and her whiny teenage son, the novel's necessary conflict has been established. If she gets a divorce, will she come back, and if she comes back will she stay? David definitely wants to be with her, but he wants to be with her in Detroit, which he is finding increasingly enjoyable.

Very early in their relationship -- well, affair actually -- he tells Carolyn he's thinking of moving back.

"'It's home ,'" he explains, 'where I'm from. It seems like a silly, hopeless thing to do, so maybe it will work out for me.'"

"'It's like moving back to Hiroshima,' she said.

"'People live there now, I'm pretty sure.' In the darkness he thought he saw her smile, or grimace. It didn't matter which. He had made a decision."

When David interviews for a job with a law firm (being an estate planner means he can work in any large city), even the partner who interviews him finds it hard to believe he's returning to Detroit on purpose. But David perseveres, gets the job and settles in happily. Next on his to-do list is to get Carolyn to come back.

She does, but leaves, and then comes back again. The affair continues, and when Carolyn is back in California she discovers she's carrying David's child. Determined to have the baby, she tells her husband what has happened, and that the baby is not his. They agree to end the marriage.

To Carolyn's surprise, David is thrilled at the news. He urges her to move back to Detroit and to marry him. She does the former and hesitates regarding the latter. I'll not reveal her eventual decision.

By this point in the book, Mr. Lasser already has introduced another set of characters, one or more of whom may be, or may know, Natalie and Dirk's killers, and as the story progresses, the author interweaves their narratives into his tale. Most of this is done in the present, but several are flashbacks, which can get a bit confusing. But his characters are well-drawn and, wonder of wonders these days, likable.

For the most part, Mr. Lasser is a fine storyteller and his easy, understated style moves the novel along at a smooth and enjoyable pace. He gets a bit heavy-handed with his you-can-go-home-again-to-Detroit subtheme, but that's the price of admission.

At the very end, one thing gave me pause. On the inside back flap, there's a picture of Mr. Lasser (who is soap-opera handsome), below which it says he was born in Detroit and worked for "the National Steel Corporation and Lehman Brothers." But it also says he "currently lives in Aspen, Colorado, and Los Angeles, California." Hey, what about Detroit? Maybe it's all right if you just say nice things about it.

• John Greenya is a Washington-area writer.