Published by Bloomsbury USA on July 5, 2016
Angels of Detroit is the kind of novel that relates the stories of several different people who turn out to be connected in some way. It takes some time to find the binding threads. One of the threads is Detroit itself, a symbol of industrial power that has been supplanted by decay and neglect. It also takes some time to find the point. I’m not sure I ever did.
HSI, a military contractor that makes consumer products in addition to weapons, is Detroit’s last remaining large employer. The company divides Detroit because the city depends on it for jobs, while protesters view it as a symbol of the military-industrial complex.
After devoting years to ineffectual protest, a young woman named McGee hatches a plan to expose the nefarious deeds of HSI. Her friend Myles plays along, but only because he is smitten with McGee. Ruth Freeman is an HSI executive who worked her way up from the bottom and views herself as the conscience of the corporation.
Darius is married to Sylvia and having an affair with Violet. His friend Michael Boni, a cabinetmaker, is working off his guilt about neglecting his crabby grandmother, whose house he inherited, by helping a crabby neighbor named Constance with her gardening.
Constance has a granddaughter named Clementine. Clementine is a loner who doesn’t have much use for most of her family members. She intersects with Dobbs when she notices that he’s occupying a formerly empty house in the neighborhood. Dobbs has been sent to Detroit to facilitate the arrival of illegal cargo from Mexico, but its arrival is continuously delayed, leaving Dobbs with dwindling funds and no clear idea of how to pass the time.
Much of the story revolves around protest. McGee’s initial plan to expose corporate wrongdoing sort of fizzles out, so she resorts to blowing up HSI properties. That plot thread (like most of the others) fizzles out, but it does serve to tie some of the characters together.
Many of the episodes in this episodic novel -- such as Boni’s attempts to raise birds and an epilog set in a remote Mexican village -- struck me as contributing little value to the story. Darius and Freeman both play ambiguous roles in the story, leaving me to wonder whether any character in the novel would contribute something meaningful to the plot. Most of them are left hanging, seemingly abandoned, by the novel’s end. Constance at least brings a resolution to one of the plot threads. She also displays a strength of character that most of the others lack, but her role in the story is quite limited.
Christopher Hebert’s elegant prose makes the novel easy to read. He highlights the humanity of his characters, making them easy to like. Many of the plot threads are interesting, although they aren’t all equally interesting. I’m just not sure of the novel’s purpose.
Detroit (as a symbol of industrial cities) is, I suppose, the novel’s point. The various characters have their own ideas about how to save the city. McGee would destroy it to facilitate rebirth. Freeman places her faith in HSI. Constance grows lettuce. Darius doesn’t know what to think. Christopher Hebert eventually draws a parallel between an abandoned resort development in Mexico and the abandonment of Detroit. All of that is moderately interesting but the ambitious story left me wondering exactly what Hebert was trying to say. On the theory that I missed it while more astute readers might get it, I will recommend the novel, but more for its sharp characters, detailed landscape, and pleasing prose than for its plot.