The Lost Tiki Palaces of Detroit: Stories, Michael Zadoorian, Wayne State University Press
The Made in Michigan Writers Series showcases some of the state’s best new, or not so new, writers. Michael Zadoorian is one of these writers, not so new, with two novels (The Leisure Seeker and Second Hand) already on the shelf. While the country struggles and just begins to show signs of emerging from economic muck, and more often than not, the national finger is pointed at Detroit as the example of the worst anywhere, dying and in parts already dead… Zadoorian rises from those ashes and finds the grit and pearl of story to tell.
No mistake, these are pearls. Found among junk piles and old photographs, abandoned houses and euthanasia rooms, marriages ravaged by adultery, homeless men turned into exhibitionists—these stories of Detroit, separated into west side, east side and downtown, record a city turning back into dust but with heart stubbornly beating on.
“To Sleep” introduces us to Zadoorian’s talent with a grand entrance on the entire collection. The story’s narrator works in the Euthanasia Room for animals, and if the metaphor of city in its death throes holds, we witness that handling death of the innocent on a daily basis cannot leave one unmoved. Watch the life go out of the eyes of a living creature often enough, and madness seeps into the mind. The executioner becomes ever more eccentric, finally building altars to the dead creatures, performing elaborate ceremonies and dances (Louis Armstrong, Charles Mingus and Thelonious Monk apparently create jazz that is perfect for felines) to see them off into the other world. Zadoorian’s writing remains in ours, sharp and haunting:
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. You can shift your vision elsewhere, but you still see the shape of the light, an after-image, superimposed on everything you look at—on a stop sign, on the page of the book late at night when you can’t sleep, on your own guilty hand when you hold it before your face.
But unlike the after-image from a bright light, this one doesn’t go away in a few moments. It’s there for keeps. And after you eradicate a few thousand of God’s living, breathing, sentient creatures like I have, you begin to believe that there’s nothing left to burn. But you’re wrong. There’s always more work to be done, more animals to be put down. Before long, you’re thinking that part of you, the part your parents told you was what made you special, the good girl part, the part that would remain even after you died, is not yours anymore. It’s just a charred, scarred accretion of the ghosted eyes of thousands of animals, the kind of scabby hard stone-cinder that we as children used to call a clinker. (page 9)
Science has shown with brain scans that certain images, viewed long enough and often enough, do indeed create a chemical burn on our brains and can never be erased. These images change our view of the world around us forever. Zadoorian sends shivers of subtle horror through us as we eye this image of those who must compartmentalize to survive what they do to other living beings. They do not survive intact.
Other stories play in similar fashion with the gradual breakdown in human beings, in relationships, in a city. “Dyskinesia” is the story of a younger man who befriends an older woman who is deteriorating from Parkinson’s disease, but learns to, more or less, manage it by painting wild and colorful canvases through her tremors. The younger man is not necessarily in any better health, although his ills are less physical. The story opens with him standing in a grocery check-out line with his wife. He points out to her a woman’s magazine on the rack with a headline about women who love too much and co-dependency. “That’s you,” he says. She buys the magazine. Reads the article. “You’re right,” she says, and without another word, packs her bags and leaves him, co-dependent no more. So he fails at other attempts at other relationships, finally able to connect only to this ailing older woman, spending ever more time with her to escape his own void. Yet even she, finally, escapes him—into a world where he cannot follow.
“War Marks” is a story of healing and forgiveness, possible only when one human being looks deeply into the eyes of another. War is the ultimate objectifier, and political powers have always understood that to enable one human being to treat another with hatred and disrespect, he must first objectify. This story touches with the meeting of two “enemies” of an old war who cannot but know respect for each other’s humanity when they meet one-on-one.
“Listening Room” is yet another exploration of how the mind and spirit deteriorate over time when the emotional abuse is a constant drip-drip-dripping presence. A boy must listen in the night to the sounds of copulation in the bedroom next door that his parents “loan” to other couples who have come to believe it is a lucky room for getting pregnant. They think nothing of what their son must listen to night after night through a thin wall, how it erodes him and changes him forever.
In “Noise of the Heart” we are almost reminded of Edgar Allen Poe’s “Telltale Heart,” as a man is driven mad by the sound of his own beating heart. It is, of course, not really his physical heart, but his metaphorically symbolic heart that drives him to attempt suicide, as he finds out about his wife’s affair with another man. He hears her tell her lover with glee about what an innocent he is, has no clue, when it is she who can’t see past her own lust—and a lover who is more interested in the competitive edge of stealing someone else’s mate than he is in her—while the cuckolded husband silently absorbs the disrespect of her actions and struggles with that ever beating and louder heart.
“Traffic Reports” explores road rage, as everyday people burst at the seams from stress and randomly shoot each other on Detroit roads. “Spelunkers” brings us into the seedier buildings of downtown Detroit , as if on an archeological dig into another time, recording it all, as Zadoorian himself does in these stories, as an art form of the dead and dying of an American city. Finally, his title story, “The Lost Tiki Palaces of Detroit ,” pulls the collection together with a homeless man on a city bus who insists he will no longer be invisible. The only way he can seem to get other people to see him is by an act of indecency. He drops his pants and exposes himself to everyone’s stunned and immediate attention. One hopes the city itself won’t have to go quite that far.
If Detroit can produce such literary talent as Zadoorian, however, it may just thrive again. These stories awaken, alarm, grieve, giggle a bit, but mostly observe what we may wish to toss away, yet should first look directly in the eye—so that we can understand something more of our own condition.
Zinta Aistars is a writer and also editor-in-chief of The Smoking Poet