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Lost in Detroit

Elizabeth Kane Buzzelli - August 31st, 2009
Lost in Detroit
Short stories dust up urban grit

Elizabeth Kane Buzzelli 8/31/09

The Lost Tiki Palaces of Detroit
By Michael Zadoorian
WSU Press - $18.95

It’s exciting to read something truly new, passionate stories woven as if from the web of the writer’s being. That’s what is found in Michael Zadoorian’s The Lost Tiki Palaces of Detroit.
These newly envisioned stories of Detroit come at you without apology for the gritty language of the city, the racism, the madness of everyday life. The whiff of ‘presence,’ of being there, grabs at your throat. I was compelled to read on by an author who knows how to involve readers with his implied promise: Stay with me here. I’ve got something new to show you.
In ‘The World of Things’ the son of a recently-dead mother has been tantalized for years by the kitschy detritus of her life, kept in a locked basement. My mother put a lock on our basement door when she decided I was after everything she owned, her son says. He is a collector of all things from the early ‘60s, that era when my parents were in their prime, living in a good white middle-class Detroit neighborhood.
He collects his mother’s memories, in the guise of Danish Modern and limned-oak furniture; things ludicrously self-serious with their commitment to the well-living of the American dream as if collecting her -- in bits and pieces. What he finds in that basement, kept from him for so long, is a rebuke for trifling with other people’s lives, and a slap at his need to collect what his mother once valued -- the bits and pieces that defined her, for reasons having nothing to do with family memory but having much to do with separating himself from his heritage.

RAW STORIES
Everything of urban life is here; nothing is glossed over. The stories are raw -- not with the fear and danger of a fallen city -- but with the human beings who inhabit that city and make it their home. I’m invisible, a homeless man declares on a downtown bus as he flashes his penis at the riders in the story ‘The Lost Tiki Palaces of Detroit.’ An elderly husband and wife from Detroit, who closely depend on each other, suffer loss at a ‘Mystery Spot’ while traveling to California. In ‘The Listening Room,’ a young man learns the secrets of sex through his parents’ famous lucky bed, but finds none of the answers. In ‘To Sleep,’ a woman euthanizes animals for a living.
“The worst part is what we call ‘ghosting,’ she says. That flicker in their eyes just a second after the Pentothal reaches the viscera, that moment, that last hundredth of a second of being as it folds into what comes after. The look in their eyes, during the wiping away of life, burns in on your soul like a klieg light on the retina.” She visits the city of Oaxaca, Mexico, on the Day of the Dead, when death is celebrated, the dead walk, and families gather in damp cemeteries. She joins the festivities through an altar in her hotel room; an expiation of her guilt.
There is much of the collector here. For very different reasons the characters collect graffiti in destroyed Detroit buildings, or collect the 1960s, or memories of Detroit’s vanished tiki palaces like the Mauna Loa, which I remember just as Zadoorian describes: 1250 Chinese coins embedded in the Lucite bar-top and bar tables made from brass hatch covers from trading schooners. A waterfall scurried down a mountainette of volcanic lava into a grotto lush with palm trees and flaming tikis. The waiters wore Mandarin jackets and turbans as they served you.
The Mauna Loa opened less than a month after the 1967 riots tore Detroit apart, and closed two years later.

MASTER PROSE MAKER
In the story ‘War Marks’ a WWII soldier faces the spoils of war he had collected: “I knew about the souvenirs gathered during the war. My first glimpse of the enemy was of their dead, Jap soldiers lying in impossible positions, shirts ripped open, pants half off, slain and bare-assed in the mud. The flags and swords now hanging in rec rooms and workshops and finished basements and war rooms.” He discovers age has turned him into a different man, not the soldier any more: “I started looking for the flag I took from the body of my first Jap. When I finally found the thing, it looked different. I looked at the symbols smeared on it, and at the stain, and suddenly I didn’t want to put it up in our basement. It felt like something I had misplaced for five decades. Something that didn’t belong to me.” He begins his hunt for the family of the slain man through a Detroit translating store, needing to return his blood-stained flag.
This, and a few others in this collection, seemed to scream at me not to dare enter -- that I was in the hands of a master prose-maker who would grab me by the throat and make me see things and places I might not want to see. Like those tricky pictures where you have to narrow your eyes to get at the real picture hidden beneath the obvious, these stories take you to places inside that are almost indescribable -- almost. Except in Michael Zadoorian’s hands. As Madge, the Parkinson’s victim painter says in ‘Dyskinesia’ as she crudely slashes paint at a canvas, vibrating with uncontrollable internal energy -- arms and legs doing a jerky electric dance, “You’ve got to use it” she says.” Otherwise it’s just wasted energy, nothing.”
Zadoorian uses his city, and his talent, to paint a picture of what is, as it truly is, and finds its pockets of beauty, its stolid citizens, its places of the heart. Just as the bus riders -- black and white -- begin to laugh together when saved from the frightening penis-waver on the city bus, there is hidden hope revealed. Warts turn out to be only warts -- not cancer. People are only people -- not ogres. In Zadoorian’s hands Detroit is safe, painted with a silvery luster that falls just short of love.

 
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