How do you tell the story of what is no longer there?

For many Americans, the decimation of the nation's manufacturing workforce over the past three decades is sensed only through statistics - millions of jobs lost, factories closed and a vague unease that some working families are being rolled over. But in Detroit, the economic destruction is palpable in the old plants that have been emptied and left to rot, serving as giant roadside tombstones for a more prosperous era. In "Punching Out," Paul Clemens, a native of Detroit, has set for himself the task of describing in depth the shuttering of one behemoth, as a kind of farewell.

The idea that a major American city could be in the process of turning into a ruin is both horrifying and alluring, becoming the subject of numerous trendy photography exhibits. But Clemens wants to do more than muse about another empty factory. "The arty delectation of Detroit's destruction - 'ruin porn,' as it's called - it sometimes seems to take up half the Internet," he writes. "I understand the fascination completely, and I don't get it at all."

His case study is the Budd Automotive plant, which in its heyday constituted a small city in itself, encompassing about 2 million square feet and employing 10,000 workers. Among other things, it stamped out pieces of Ford Explorers.

Beginning after production has ceased at the plant, Clemens's story centers on the grim work of wreckers and movers of equipment, of the security guards warding off vandals and of corporate scavengers from plants in Mexico and elsewhere who buy Budd's machinery for use in countries where labor is cheaper.

The tale unfolds in a series of vignettes that Clemens captured while hanging out during the months-long dismantling of the plant. The woes of Detroit provoke both desperation and philosophizing. Standing around 50-gallon oil drums with fires inside to keep warm, workers reflect somberly, sometimes colorfully, about the exodus of manufacturing and about their homesickness.

A scrap thief, caught by the security guards, is forced to kneel with his hands behind his head, but then asks for a job. A trucker named Rafael shows off his tattoos of an American eagle and a phoenix and then complains about Detroit: "It's cold, it's miserable. I want to go home and ride my motorcycle."

And the author of an industry newsletter called Plant Closing News, a kind of almanac of economic destruction, sees in the shutterings a reflection of moral decline, comparing the upheaval first to the fall of Rome and then to the wayward people of the Bible, with scriptural citations of Chronicles. "You know what? It's that desperate. We've lost our horizon. We don't know whether we're flying right side up or upside down," he says.

The equipment being salvaged from the Budd plant will end up in India, Brazil and Mexico, sometimes to make parts for the same auto companies, but with much lower labor costs. At the Mexican plant, the only other one that Clemens visits in the book, he notes that workers make about $3,500 a year, only a small fraction of what the unionized workers at the U.S. plant once made. Remember, Clemens instructs, that "this city once was a Cadillac, before becoming a Buick, then an Oldsmobile and a Pontiac (both defunct), and finally, a Chevy, a high mileage hauler that has done honest work but can sometimes seem closer and closer to coming to a halt."

Clemens displays a fascination with equipment, although its use and significance will often be a mystery to readers. But the ultimate absence, at least for this reader, is what the Budd plant was like in its heyday and what has happened to those who once populated the vast complex.

At one point, Clemens is left to imagine, as if in a movie, the manager looking out over the factory floor from his office as he realizes that things are headed for trouble. It is just the kind of scene that, if documented, might best describe the loss implicit in all those vacant factories.

Peter Whoriskey covers the auto industry and manufacturing for The Washington Post.


One Year in a Closing Auto Plant

By Paul Clemens

Doubleday. 271 pp. $25.95