Years in the making, some books come out at exactly the right time, providing rich context for events that are grabbing headlines.

Years in the making, some books come out at exactly the right time, providing rich context for events that are grabbing headlines.

Published this year, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Charlie LeDuff's "Detroit: An American Autopsy" is a fascinating, multilayered look at a city that is in the midst of the largest municipal bankruptcy case in United States history.

LeDuff grew up in Detroit, moved away to pursue his career, then came back to take a newspaper job in the city.

Detroit seems like either a war zone or a post-apocalyptic world — minus the zombies but full of drug addicts and criminals.

Once the thriving center of the American car industry, Detroit has lost almost half its population and an estimated 40 percent of its buildings are vacant.

The rest of the country began paying attention to Detroit's plight only in 2008, when the whole economy teetered on the edge of disaster. That's when people began to ask questions about the city, LeDuff writes.

"Was Detroit an outlier or an epicenter? Was Detroit a symbol of the greater decay? Is the Motor City the future of America? Are we living through a cycle or an epoch?" he writes.

LeDuff seems to believe that Detroit is indeed the canary in the coal mine, with America set to follow in its footsteps as the manufacturing sector erodes and the middle class hollows out.

He writes that the book is about the increasingly common experience of "waking up one morning and being told you are obsolete and not wanting to believe it but knowing it's true."

"Detroit: An American Autopsy" is a pessimistic book, but also contains fascinating details. It has the harshness of a novel by Cormac McCarthy — author of ultra-violent books such as "The Road" and "No Country for Old Men" — except that it's no novel.

The city's beleaguered and inadequately equipped firefighters go out to extinguish blazes set by metal scavengers, building owners wanting insurance payouts, thrill-seeking out-of-town arsonists and residents who think watching a house fire is cheaper than paying for a movie. At times, the firefighters half-joke that they are working for the metal scavengers.

"The scavengers, looking for metal to sell at the scrap yard, light a section of the building on fire. After the firemen dutifully extinguish the blaze, the scavengers return to help themselves to the neatly exposed girders and I-beams that form the skeleton of the structure," LeDuff explains.

In a city with sky-high unemployment, the purposefully set fires seem almost like an example of industrious work done by people just trying to survive. Until a firefighter dies when a burning roof collapses on him.

LeDuff follows the case throughout the book to see whether the building owner who arranged the arson for insurance money is ever brought to justice.

Desperation leads to horrifying outcomes. A man too poor to keep his children warm tries to tap into a gas main with a garden hose, but blows up a neighborhood block.

No one is safe. An elderly man who cashed his Social Security check is bludgeoned and robbed on the street. A teen is gunned down after looking at a gang member the wrong way.

LeDuff provides historical details on rampant political corruption that has plagued Detroit for decades, as well as the origins of its racial tensions.

Detroit boomed between 1920 and 1960 when black people left behind cotton fields to take factory jobs. Southern whites also joined in the migration and brought their segregationist ideas to Detroit.

"Michigan may geographically be one of America's most northern states, but spiritually, it is one of its most southern," LeDuff writes.

Only time will tell whether Detroit is a harbinger of what's to come in this country, or if the city is just a place where a perfect storm of economic, political and social forces combined with the worst in human nature to create the kind of city most of us would like to think doesn't exist in America.

Reach reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-479-8199 or by email at