Mark Binelli's Detroit City Is the Place to Be is a nuanced portrait of a once-great American industrial city's fall into decay, and its recent, tentative renaissance. Binelli, also a novelist and contributing editor for Rolling Stone, tells us the 10 cities that have received the finest treatment in literature, and the books to read for each.
When I started thinking about my favorite cities in literature, I quickly realized I’d need to impose a minimal number of arbitrary constraints on the game or otherwise risk burying myself. And so: no to the excruciatingly obvious (Ulysses, A Moveable Feast), and no repeat cities, either (with the exception of New York, because, come on, it’s New York; henceforth this exemption shall be referred to as “the Joseph Mitchell Clause”), and my list would be divided equally between works of fiction and nonfiction.
Also, the city in question, and this particularly applies to the novels, needed to be more than mere setting. Whatever that means; it’s fairly subjective, I know. As annoying as it can be when people refer to a city as “another character” in a book, I guess that comes closest to the sense of this last criterion.
Here’s the list, in alphabetical order:
Watermark by Joseph Brodsky - A slender meditation on Venice by the exiled Russian poet, filled with lines like this: “‘Depict! Depict!’ [the morning light] cries to you, either mistaking you for some Canaletto or Carpaccio or Guardi, or because it doesn’t trust your retina’s ability to retain what it makes available... Perhaps art is simply an organism’s reaction against its retentive limitations.”
Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino - Calvino’s books were some of the first that made me want to write fiction. Much later, I mined Invisible Cities, one of his masterpieces — a dialogue between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan that’s also a series of prose poems about the metaphorical potential of the city — for the epigraph to Detroit City Is the Place to Be, Detroit being a city that’s long existed as a sort of (to borrow the apt phrasing of one headline writer) “Metaphoropolis.”
City of Quartz by Mike Davis - Davis has written extensively, and brilliantly, about Los Angeles, but City of Quartz, for my money, is his greatest book about one of my favorite American cities. As simultaneously visionary and paranoid as a Philip K. Dick novel, it is populated with an eccentric cast of characters ranging from L. Ron Hubbard to Ornette Coleman.
Miami by Joan Didion - Speaking of California, Didion remains unmatched when she’s writing about her home state in essential collections like Slouching Towards Bethelem and The White Album. But it’s so much fun watching her cruel precision trained upon wildly unfamiliar terrain, like, say, Miami Vice-era Miami — oh, don’t you wish she and Michael Mann had taken a breakfast meeting at the Sunset Marquis in the Eighties? — a city where, she notes acidly in the book’s opening lines, “Havana vanities come to dust.”
The Jew of New York by Ben Katchor - An overstuffed, Pynchonesque graphic novel by one of the medium’s best, set, as all of Katchor’s comics are, in a quasi-historical Gotham(ish) fantasia that will make you nostalgic for block-long button districts that probably never actually existed. His two collections of Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer strips cover similar terrain, and are also highly recommended.
City Primeval by Elmore Leonard - Detroit! As you can imagine, picking one Motor City book wasn’t easy for me. I almost went with Getting Ghost, Luke Bergmann’s account of his harrowing embed with a pair of teenage drug dealers, which is as visceral and moving as any season of The Wire. But this Elmore Leonard novel perfectly captures the bad old Detroit of a different era (the late Seventies), and citing it gives me the opportunity to ask: why hasn’t any filmmaker adapted this book as a period piece yet?!
Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner - I spent a summer living in Barcelona, but only a few days in Madrid, and never loved it. I did love this debut novel by a young poet, though, which takes place at the time of the 2004 Madrid subway bombings and channels W.G. Sebald in way that’s far more interesting, for my money, than another Sebaldian homage published the same year, Teju Cole’s Open City.
Between Meals by A.J. Liebling - Liebling on New York would have been a solid choice, of course —and if you’re in the mood for that, definitely check out the longtime New Yorker staffer’s Back Where I Came From and The Telephone Booth Indian — but I had to go with his Paris eating memoir. Bringing a true glutton’s zeal to his task, Liebling lovingly conjures favorite bistros of his youth and describes a dozen (“or possibly eighteen”) oysters and a thick marrow-topped steak as a “sensibly light meal.”
A Map of Tulsa by Benjamin Lytal - I had a chance to read an early copy of this debut novel, out next year, and set in the only city on this list I’ve never visited. I can’t say the book will make you rush out and book a flight to Oklahoma, but it’s a wonderful portait of a particular time in a young person’s life and how the most aching significance can be projected onto a place (like Tulsa), simply because it used to be yours.
Up in the Old Hotel by Joseph Mitchell - The Master; there’s really no better book about New York. The opening sentence of the title essay —“Every now and then, seeking to rid my mind of thoughts of death and doom, I get up early and go down to Fulton Fish Market”—might call to mind the first few lines uttered by Ishmael. Which is fitting: taken in total, the stories in Up in the Old Hotel comprise a tour de force as vital, eccentric and distinctively American as Moby-Dick.