The city of Flint, Michigan was perhaps best known to me as director Michael Moore’s hometown, and the forlorn city at the heart of Moore’s documentary, Roger and Me. Sadly, very little has changed for Flint since the 1980’s. In fact, given the more recent drama of the contamination of its water supply, you can’t help but wonder if it’s cursed.
Like many cities in the United States’ rust belt, Flint’s better days are well behind it, and so, it has experienced a slow (and irreversible?) decline for decades, entering a cycle of chronic unemployment or underemployment of its population, rapidly rising poverty, strained social resources, and diminishing income for its city government. A certain recipe for despair, if not disaster.
A recent reviewer of the series described it this way:
“While the world might know Flint best as the city where the water crisis happened, the eight-part series unravels that snapshot description to show what happens when corruption, violence and poverty gnaw a city to its bone.”
Among other things, what happens is that the city winds up with an underfunded, understaffed police force. The implications of this are what Flint Town exposes to viewers.
I lead such a quiet, sheltered existence here in Pointe-Claire. I’ve never experienced life on the teetering edge of law and order. What would it be like to call 911 and have no one respond for hours, because there just isn’t enough manpower in the MUC? What would it be like to love a police officer who works most shifts alone, often entering dangerous situations without backup? What must it be like to live in an area so run down that half of the houses in certain neighbourhoods are either drug squats or uninhabitable? How would my vision of the police be altered if my only contacts with officers meant having a weapon pointed at me, or being treated as a criminal?
It’s what has happened to many of North America’s cities, in which costly and mounting problems far outstrip financial resources. But there’s something else at work: the disquieting sense that the social contract between the institutions of government and the citizenry they serve has been broken, and that the forces of law and order have ceased being part of a community, and instead, become militarized, viewing citizens as “civilians” rather than simply neighbours.
Flint Town works because the people holding the camera allow it to pan left, right and wide, showing viewers as broad a view as possible before zeroing in on personal stories: a couple of police officers who are also in love and living together; an unlikely combo of new recruits—a mother and her son—who have just finished their training and have begun their careers as beat cops; the new chief of police with a gung-ho, ill-advised, confrontational attitude towards “cleaning up” the city’s streets, and the black and Latino officers whose loyalties are constantly tested in the social and political climate.
It’s so relevant, so current. Maybe that’s why a novel I picked up soon after watching Flint Town pulled me in completely. The book is Green Sun, author Kent Anderson’s third novel, published in 2018.
I lucked into Green Sun. Kent Anderson (not unlike Percival Everett) is a novelist whose popularity isn’t nearly commensurate with the admiration his work receives from critics and his peers. It can be viewed as a hyper-masculine book that fits into the mystery/thriller/suspense/noir category, featuring a cop who, in another time, might have been a lone gunslinger in a western; all of which probably shouldn’t make me a likely reader and admirer.
But what a find it is. I loved Green Sun. While reading it, the parallels with the lives of the cops of Flint Town were so easily drawn. Green Sun walks us into the marrow of the life of a beat cop named Hanson, in a city—in this case East Oakland, California—in over its head with poverty, racial tension and crime (drugs, extortion and violence), who’s asked to do his job with a car that’s one shift away from the junk yard, without a partner (underfunding and understaffing are as integral to the story as they are in Flint, Michigan).
None of this bothers Hanson. In fact, he’s happiest when he’s on his own, away from his colleagues with hair-trigger reactions who too often respond with, if not orchestrate, violent confrontations with suspects (in this world, it seems that everyone is a potential perpetrator). And yet, in order to make contact with the people of his beat, Hanson repeatedly puts himself in harm’s way, engaging in bar fights, taking on a riotous mob on his own, dealing face to face with the local criminal kingpins. The reader begins to think he has a death wish, and this is what drives the novel.
Green Sun doesn’t so much deliver tense suspense as it creates a narrative so authentic and unadorned that it feels actual; as though it could be happening today, in Flint, Michigan, or some other North American city in the throes of 21st century reality. The parallels are all there except that… Green Sun is set in 1983.
A bit of digging revealed that Hanson is, in fact, author Kent Anderson’s alter-ego. Both the author and his antihero are Special Forces (Viet Nam) veterans. Both did graduate degrees in English literature and taught in a university. Both were beat cops in Portland, Oregon and in East Oakland. The prescription to “write what you know” has yielded a ferocious series of novels by Kent Anderson.
In an interview I found on YouTube, Anderson proves to be as acerbic and direct as Hanson, describing the omniscient narrator’s voice that follows Hanson through his novels this way: “Part of my job is to be the visiting monster”, by which he means the dispassionate witness to monstrous things, giving the monster’s point of view.
But Anderson’s third novel is anything but monstrous. Instead, we’re given the opportunity to walk beside a complex character who has seen war and combat at its most hideous, and emerged from it with psychic wounds, and his humanity and integrity preserved.
« Pain takes us to places we cannot anticipate, to events we have managed to completely forget, returns us to worlds we hadn’t known we ever visited. Pain bends our attention to what we would ignore. Hanson used to smile and say that pain was his friend.”
– Kent Anderson, Green Sun