By Jim Feast
Using the term a bit irregularly, I would say Peter Werbe’s powerful new novel Summer on Fire, which describes events in Detroit in 1967, is a work of alternative history. In general use, this phrase refers to science fiction in which what happened in the past is imagined as having taken a different path. In a famed Phillip Dick’s novel, for instance, the Nazis won WWII. However, to shift the meaning of the term: what if, due to the predominance of the corporate media in shaping perceptions, Americans mostly have a false perception of what happened in the past? Then most would already have a false sense of the old days.
To give some credence to this view, we can follow the argument of German writer Michael Schneider (in Neurosis and Civilization) who says the abundance of advertising filling the world with pleasant, concocted imagery puts people into a dream world. “In … commodity society the sphere of religion [with its mythical projections] … becomes superfluous because commodity production creates out of itself a ‘phantasmal world of appearances’ on a much higher level than religion was ever capable of doing.” Taking a similar tack, Anthony Wilden (in the anthology Semiotexte Canada) remarks, “In society today, especially in Canada and other countries with colonial histories, the Imaginary dominates our understanding of social and economic relationships. … The dominance of the Imaginary … is a collectively experienced and collectively supported system of mirages.”
Our remembered history is also subject to becoming a mirage. In Werbe’s novel, the two main characters (Paul and Michelle) pick up the book Topaz, which “has been on the New York Times best-seller list for a year.” Its popularity indicates its influence on consciousness, yet, as Paul explains, “It’s bullshit history [of the Cuban Missile Crisis] with one of the imperial powers getting presented as the bad guy, and us as the victim,” while, in truth, there was wrongdoing on both sides.
In distinction from Topaz’s dishonest account of events, Werbe’s portrayal of the Detroit 1967 riots, coming from one who saw it firsthand, reporting for Fifth Estate underground paper, wants to get the facts straight. For Werbe, who for years as a radical journalist in print and on the radio has worked to expose where the dominant corporate media has diluted or hidden facts, reality is alternative history.
In three ways, Werbe’s novel, while following literary conventions with an engaging plot, well-developed characters, and striking conflicts, acts as a corrective to slick, thoughtless histories of the 1960s.
Most journalistically, the book contrasts hysterical mainstream press accounts with actually recorded facts. For instance, the Detroit papers report “Bands of Negroes armed with army machine guns [who] kept two police precincts from functioning … [and] guardsmen and police … forced to abandon entire sections of the ghetto due to sniper fire.” Yet, in point of fact, according to court records, “No one was arrested as a sniper nor wounded in so-called gun battles. There were no police or Guard casualties from shooters. No [sniper] ‘nests were found.” All this gives the lie to the fevered media depictions.
Secondly, being on the ground, viewing thing up close (with Werbe drawing on his own articles and memories from the time), the hero touches on elements of the events that were never mentioned in the mainstream’s tales of violence, fire and property destruction. Tragic as these events were, Werbe points out that in the chaos one might also observe what might be called the “joy of looting.” Here’s what Paul and another reporter observe when they arrive at one of the epicenters of the action:
As Paul and Sidney pulled up, they could tell right away that this was not an angry crowd but a quite joyous one. Not only were groceries free for the taking through the smashed-out, large plate-grass window but it was also payback time for a despised merchant.
The reporters find “The elation was contagious with everyone, strangers and friends, greeting one another, hugging and laughing. It was a half Black, half white crowd, as was the neighborhood, rifling through the meats and vegetables, picking out just what they wanted.” The author is neither condoning nor condemning what went on, but observing that in distinction from the news reports of mad-dog violence, he is seeing in one area an almost party atmosphere.
However, the most significant way the real past is brought to life is through the employment of a method that is well beyond the purview of corporate journalism, that is, by situating current events in historical context. Conveniently enough, many of the characters are history buffs, so as groups of them go into various parts of the city, the autodidacts among them fill in the others on each neighborhood’s past. For instance, when they go into the Belle Isle beach area, we learn that in 1943, there was a previous riot with “violence perpetuated mostly by white mobs attacking isolated blacks, leaving a toll of 34 people dead, 25 of them Black; 433 wounded, 75 percent of them Black.”
As readers learn the back story of Detroit’s generations of racism, they see the riot is not just the result of the trigger incident when white police invaded and roughed up blacks in an afterhours joint, but the culmination of years of police brutality and discrimination. Moreover the Black club where the action starts is located in an anomic, unsettled area that recently formed after the close-knit, long-lived Paradise Alley Black neighborhood was destroyed for urban renewal, which forced evictions breaking ties and leaving people with less community support .
It goes without saying that the misinformation about the riot provided by the mass media is not simple inaccuracy but a way of hiding white supremacy. To return to Wilden, we can find a possible explanation of why the corporate media, run by the well off and over the years providing depictions Blacks as lawless, now concocts the erroneous stories of machine-gun toting Blacks. Wilden shows how oppressors, without checking evidence, will project their own hostility on their victims. As the Canadian author explains, “We project onto them [people who are defined by society as subordinate in the various socioeconomic hierarchies] our unrecognized desires … This kind of projection is a kind of violence against other human beings; and in consequence, it has as it almost automatic complement: the fear of retaliation.” Werbe’s corrective writing aims to take away this cover that has shielded domination.
Certainly, there is also a positive side to the city recognized in Werbe’s book: incidents of self-help, mutual aid and people of all races banding together to protest racism, the U.S.’s war in Vietnam and sexism. The core group in the story, journalists for the underground press, both report on and join the protests against injustice.
The book ends on what at first appears a somewhat out-of-place excursion. After the rioting has been quelled and the city returns to business as usual, the leading pair go off to visit Paul’s parents who rent a house on a Maine island. This seems an odd swerve to take, ending far from where the heart of the book is centered. However, once the heroes arrive on the coast, they find the effects of America’s conflicts are evident even in this vacation spot.
Monhegan Island is a tourist mecca. “The big island’s permanent residents numbered 44, but swelled fivefold during the tourist season.” It is a retreat for the wealthy or near-wealthy, with beautiful seascapes and no pesky minorities. Yet even here the Vietnam War has stirred a group of radicals to go forward with their ill-conceived plan to blow up the post office!
And beyond this continuity between the Midwestern city and the resort in the presence of dissent against the Southeast Asian war, there is the inescapable pressure of history that Werbe finds in every landscape. So, for instance, as the couple drive through some of Maine’s impoverished inland burgs, Paul thinks aloud, “Why are these towns so poor? … I know the IWW was big around here in the 1920s, and the Wobblies fought a big battle with the Ku Klux Klan.” The point here and throughout the book is that we can only grasp everyday events by throwing a backward glance at the history of struggle between the dominant groups and the (relatively) dispossessed.
In sum, Summer on Fire involves a double reflection on temporality. The characters living in 1967 in their ongoing conversations during the days of the riot orient themselves and their reporting by anchoring their understanding in Detroit’s racist history. Simultaneously, Werbe, writing in 2021, implicitly suggests that the struggles in our day, when racism and the fight back against it continue, need an accurate account of the past to work fruitfully. If, as Paul Virilio puts it, a central task of corporate culture is “the extermination of time,” then Werbe’s enthralling novel aims to put time back on our clocks.
You can find the book here: https://www.thebookbeat.com/bookshop/catalog/summer-on-fire-by-peter-werbe/
Bio: Jim Feast is the author of the poetry book A Strange Awakening of Light that Takes the Place of Dawn (Autonomedia, 2020).