In Benjamin Markovits’s latest novel, “You Don’t Have to Live Like This,” a Southerner — directionless, overlooked, frustrated — latches on to what he hopes is a new life in Detroit in 2011. With the national media roiling with articles about race, justice and class, particularly in that struggling Michigan city, this story could not be more timely.
The novel seeks to address what many pundits, politicians and plain folks are saying with such urgency in this country: We must think, talk and act deeply and honestly about these issues if we are going to make it to the next decade, let alone the next century.
The title itself appears in a speech that Markovits describes being delivered by our first African American president, the same one who this summer delivered the eulogy for the slain South Carolina pastor and state senator who was killed in the basement of a church along with eight of his fellow worshipers.
With all these timely elements, this novel feels as though it should be an important part of our national discussion. But, alas, Markovits appears not up to the complicated task of discussing race and gentrification, aging and crime, and the lies we tell ourselves and one another. The characters merely angered me with their naivete and their confused ideas about reviving and profiting from blighted neighborhoods in a city deserted by people, business and government.
“You Don’t Have to Live Like This” is narrated in a leisurely style by Greg “Marny” Marnier, a rootless man-child in his 30s from Baton Rouge. Marny likes to think of himself as “quietly cool” while noting the ethnicity and outward appearance of everyone he meets. More unaware than innocent, Marny has followed the path of least resistance his entire life, drifting from high school into college and grad school and on to a dead-end teaching job in Wales. Then, at his 10-year reunion at Yale, he bumps into a successful, grudgingly admired friend who is jazzed about rebuilding sections of Detroit.
With nothing to hold him anywhere in particular, Marny loads up his car, stops at Wal-Mart to purchase a shotgun, and moves to a block in what his developer friend has staked out as “Ground Zero” of Detroit’s revitalization plan. Here, Marny calls on his neighbors and his own meager skills to renovate one of the hundreds of the city’s deserted buildings as his new home.
Markovits is a master at describing the devastated and deserted streets of Detroit, “where the houses looked stepped on.” But instead of blending into the fabric of this novel, the author appears at every turn, peeping around ham-handed metaphors and too-aptly named characters, such as Steve Zipp and Tyler Waites. The constant noise of automobile traffic that surrounds the city and especially Marny’s new neighborhood is a heavy reminder of where we are and what the Motor City has lost.
One sees not so much story development as lazy writing, for example: “Meanwhile, my life went on.” Where the reader looks for insight, she gets rhetoric and stereotypes. Only a generous spirit can overlook the fact that virtually every black, adult male character other than a wispy, insecure President Obama, who makes a couple of cameos for timeliness, is seen by Marny as “barrel-chested,” “built like a linebacker,” “with a football background,” “big,” “muscular,” “fifty pounds overweight.” All the female characters are reduced to types: “one of those women who,” “one of those mothers who,” “one of those people with a confession to make.” This repetition of a worn-out device distracts from any deeper observations the novel might offer on human nature.
Of course, there is the unresolved relationship with a first love. Marny’s obligatory interracial relationship with a damaged firebrand do-gooder black woman with serious daddy issues. The semi-closeted gay dude. The shiny new Asian American prosecutor. The white middle-class mom. The former city cops who care only about their pensions. And, finally, the destabilizing trial that rests on class, fear and race and causes everyone to take a side.
All these modern cliches are trotted out in an effort to encapsulate an intricate tale of an urban scheme mired in greed and disrespect. But one wishes that the author had delved more deeply into the relationships, history and culture of the modern-day melting pot. Race and class seem to be everywhere but nowhere new in this novel.
Only when Marny’s older brother, Brad, shows up on a stopover from his comfortable life in Houston does Markovits’s writing come alive with a spirit of truth:
“In certain public spaces, airports, for example, you can sometimes see people you love the way a stranger would. Brad looked like the kind of guy waitresses and flight attendants start a conversation with. Like somebody who makes good money but also knows how to have a good time. His deck shoes flopped a little on his feet; they looked comfortable. But his Dockers were clean and new and sat tight on his ass.”
It’s a facile reaction to agree with this novel’s Obama that we “don’t have to live like this.” Of course, we shouldn’t have to struggle for the basic freedoms, joys and necessities of life. But we still need better fiction about race — this unwieldy cultural beast that threatens to destroy us all. One cannot expect a novelist to have all the answers to the issues he is tackling. However, in Maya Angelou’s profound words, one does ask that he have a song to sing.
Tina McElroy Ansa is a novelist in Georgia whose most recent book is “Taking After Mudear.”
By Benjamin Markovits
Harper. 391 pp. $27.99