Hometown strangers

Aug 4, 2010 at 12:00 am

Every Memorial Day, European tourists swarm Detroit for the annual Movement electronic music festival to lay laurels at the birthplace of techno and give thanks to its progenitors: Juan Atkins, Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson. Though these men walk the streets mostly unrecognized here, mere mortals in their home city, in Europe they are exalted, stadium-filling Gods of Thunder. I mean, they really love those guys there. L-O-V-E them.

Strange? Not really. A lot of Detroit musicians survive by touring overseas where they play to packed houses. It's an odd phenomenon being more popular in Rotterdam than your hometown, yet it's something Detroit artists are used to. 

What was strange was when some of that twisted foreign popularity happened to me, a fiction writer. Three years ago, I found myself at a particularly low point of my literary career. It had been seven years since my first novel came out, and my second one had failed to find a home. I was without a publisher, an editor or a literary agent. I was thinking, "OK, I guess that's it. Career over." I was still writing, mind you, but somehow I had become that guy: Johnny One-Book. 

Luckily, I still had my day job, writing copy at one of the few surviving automotive advertising agencies here in town. Still, I was pretty depressed about the whole book thing. Finally I told myself: Time to shake off the literary malaise and suck it up. We are made of stronger stuff in this rusty burg. Where are those darn bootstraps? 

Shortly afterward, from out of nowhere, a timid little e-mail popped up on my machine. Yet it really wasn't from out of nowhere. It was from Italy. Three lines, asking me in slightly awkward English, if the Italian Rights to Second Hand (the aforementioned first novel) were still available. At first I thought it was a joke, but it wouldn't have been a very funny joke. I mean, Italy? It's not where you expect literary salvation to happen. (Not that you shouldn't. I mean, come on: Alighieri, Calvino, Eco. The Italians are doing fine, thank you.) I checked it out and discovered that Marcos Y Marcos, the publishing company that had contacted me, was a small, well-respected house that not only published Italian writers, but had also been successfully publishing translations of Richard Brautigan, John Fante, William Saroyan, Jhumpa Lahiri, John Kennedy Toole, Heinrich Boll and others. 

After I realized that it wasn't a joke, I thought: "Are the Italian rights available?" Actually, at that point, I was pretty sure that the American rights were available. Originally published by W.W. Norton, Second Hand is a quirky, comic novel about loss and love for a Detroit junk-store owner. It's a cult favorite in some circles, and it continues to produce an infinitesimal, but steady trickle of sales each year, because thrifters and bloggers keep discovering it and writing about it. Even though Marcos Y Marcos publisher Marco Zapparoli told me that they didn't even have anything remotely like a thrift shop in Italy, he just had a feeling about the book. And besides, he said, Italians were very interested in Detroit.

Interested in Detroit? Sign me up. At that point, I already loved the Italians. 

But what could the Italians possibly love about my hometown? After all, America mocks and derides Detroit. On those rare occasions when they even think of us, we're constantly held up as the model of all that is wrong with the American city — violent, corrupt, depressing, ugly, dying, racially polarized and fat. If it's bad, we're it

Yet not so for the Italians. For one thing, they're a culture that appreciates ruins and art. We have plenty of both of those here in Detroit. Although we are no Venice, nobly crumbling and sinking into the sea, Detroit is full of amazing art and artists of all disciplines, and I think some people would agree with me that this place is not without its shattered beauty. And often our artists devote their work to same. So is it a surprise that Glenn Barr's funky, surreal, high-low-culture paintings of Detroit's abandoned buildings and ghetto saloons sell well overseas? The same with Stephen Magsig, yet another artist that lives just down the street from me here in Ferndale. Magsig's Hopperesque tableaus of boarded-up street scenes, graffitied factories and collapsing Victorian homes also move in countries like France and Germany.

Alessandro Cosmelli, an expatriate Italian photographer based in Brooklyn who often shoots in Detroit, believes the city is "a magic place." He has visited the Heidelberg Project -— Tyree Guyton's block-long art installation of polka dot houses, trees festooned with shoes and backyards filled with discarded vacuum cleaners — and finds it to be incredible. He photographs everything from the shuttered factories in the city to the manicured auto baron estates of Grosse Pointe. 

Of course, Italians really love Detroit because of the music. Europe is ravenous for that Detroit sound. Everything from proto-punk bands like the MC5 and the Stooges to modern Detroit garage rock. Amy Gore of the band Gorevette has toured Italy a number of times. Same with other groups like the Hard Lessons, the Detroit Cobras, Blanche and a whole lot of others. Gore says, "Detroit artists are very well received overseas." A far cry from America, where these fine bands often tour and toil in relative anonymity. 

Everywhere in Italy, people gush about Motown music. In the '60s, Motown was so popular in Italy that Berry Gordy had his artists record translated versions of their songs specifically for the Italian market. Back then, the transistor radios of teens from Turin to Palermo were blaring such hits as The Supremes' "Se il filo spezzerai" ("You Keep Me Hanging On"), Stevie Wonder's "Solo te, solo me, solo noi" ("Yester-Me, Yester-You, Yesterday") or even The Four Tops' "Gira Gira" ("Reach Out I'll Be There").

OK, so maybe Detroit is still riding the emotional coattails of music made almost a half-century ago. Who cares? I was just happy the Italians wanted me. And when Marcos Y Marcos published Second Hand: Una storia d'amore in 2008, it sold. Surprisingly well. I find myself forever indebted to them for breaking what had officially become known as "the long, dry spell" in my literary career. That e-mail from Italy was the first attention my writing had gotten in a fair number of years. It wasn't long after that I acquired a new literary agent and soon received word that William Morrow was going to publish my second book, The Leisure Seeker, a road novel about a pair of delinquent senior citizens who run away from home against the wishes of their doctors and middle-aged progeny. A day later, Wayne State University Press snapped up my story collection, The Lost Tiki Palaces of Detroit

Molte grazie, Italiani.

When Marcos Y Marcos
published their translation of The Leisure Seeker (In Viaggio Contromano, as it's known there) in 2009, mere months after it was published in America, I was thrilled when it, too, sold well and received a ton of publicity. There were write-ups in the Italian versions of Marie Claire, Rolling Stone and Elle, as well as reviews and interviews in a goodly number of fashion, music and culture glossies with such names as Pulp and Mucchio, often accompanied by alarmingly large photographs of me. This was unfamiliar territory, seeing myself look up at myself from the pages of a slick magazine, tucked between semi-nude cologne ads and photos of sallow indie bands. There were big reviews of my novel in national newspapers, such as Il giornale, L'Espresso, Il Sole 24 ore, including a downright ebullient review in Corriere della sera by one of Italy's most popular writers, Paolo Giordano. (His book, The Solitude of Prime Numbers has sold more than 2 million copies worldwide.)

What the hell was going on? Most of my friends thought it was hilarious. They called me "The Jerry Lewis of Italy." But my musician friends saw it differently: "Dude, you're huge there!" I laughed, because I wasn't really "huge," in any sort of rock star sense, but still, it was pretty damn cool. And when the all-expense-paid invitation came from Festivaletteratura, one of Italy's largest literary festivals, which takes place each September in the medieval town of Mantua, I was starting to think, in the words of Ron Burgundy, that I was "kind of a big deal" over there. 

I have never been to anything like Festivaletteratura in America. Four days devoted to the complete and utter worship of writers and writing. It's a love-fest for writers from all over the world. All types of media — TV, film, radio, print and online — all there just to glorify writers. As far as I know, I was the only Detroiter. Within 20 minutes of meeting my Italian publicist, I had five paparazzi backing me up against ancient stone walls, barking out orders, pantomiming literary poses for me to parrot. ("Now, hand on face!" "Touch your glasses!" "Cross the arms!") I was really wishing I had an ascot, a pipe and a patched tweed jacket. 

I don't have to tell you that nothing even remotely like that has ever happened to me in Detroit. Or America. Or anywhere, for that matter. I should also say that I don't think those paps truly had much idea who I was. Their job is to photograph all the writers they can and hope later that they can sell the images. Still, it was a heady experience. I remember glancing over at my wife while it was happening, giving her a "Can you believe this?" look. And her just laughing uncontrollably at me. I wish she had taken a photograph because no one ever believes me when I tell this story. 

Despite all that, I was still a little worried that no one was going to show up at my event, which was an interview by Patrizio Roversi, an Italian television personality. Turned out that I didn't need to worry. There were more than 600 people in attendance. Just so you know, for the lion's share of literary events in America, mine included, if your turnout is in the double digits, it's considered wildly successful. Come si dice "WTF?" in Italian?

And recently, on the eve of the Marcos Y Marcos publication of my story collection, The Lost Tiki Palaces of Detroit (Il mondo delle cosa), I found myself at my little house in Ferndale being interviewed and photographed by Italian Vanity Fair. I think you know that we here in the Motor City are not accustomed to visits by anyone from any edition of Vanity Fair — American, Italian, Lithuanian, you name it. I'm not sure we even exist in the world according to Vanity Fair. That is, unless Graydon Carter has actually heard of this place, and he's still working on that very special Detroit issue. I'm not holding my breath. 

I was interviewed and photographed extensively and couldn't help but think how strange it all was, and how lucky I was for these things to be happening to me. Of course, as an American writer, you want Americans to read your books, and that's happened for me. My work has been received well here. I've gotten good reviews, support from bookstores and libraries and awards — I have nothing to complain about. But Italy was something extra, something special. 

Detroiters are rarely appreciated in America. Tell someone you're from Detroit and you either get a look of pity or they wait for you to pull a gun on them. Pathos or badass, that's pretty much all we get. But here in a city where even the artists, musicians and writers have a Midwestern factory town work ethic, you gotta like it when someone, anyone, appreciates your work. It doesn't matter if they're not in your hometown or home state or even home country. And even if no more of my books are published in Italy, I will be eternally grateful to the Italians for their kindness and their interest in my hometown. 

I can't help but think that maybe America could take a hint from Italy when it comes to Detroit. Americans have always looked to Europe for cues on art, fashion, film, design and food. We understand that they have a talent for recognizing beauty, for appreciating culture, for knowing what's good. Maybe it's time for other people to see Detroit the way that the Italians see it, the way that many of us who live around here see it: a place weary and oft-broken, but full of energy, creativity and good people strong of soul and spirit.

When your biggest fans are an ocean away
A few Detroiters who give thanks to "angels" abroad