Once in a Great City: A Detroit Story

David Maraniss Simon and Schuster, 441 pages, $32.50

Detroit in the early 1960s was a symbol not of urban decline and Rust Belt blight, but of high hopes and youthful dreams. Coveted cars didn't have model numbers then but names that spoke of flight and fantasy and raw animal power — the Ford Galaxie, Thunderbird and Mustang, and the Plymouth Barracuda — and they were rolling off the Detroit assembly lines at a record pace.

The country was dancing to the beat of Motown's irresistible pop-soul groove. President Lyndon B. Johnson would stop in Detroit and call the big labor city "the herald of hope in America."

In his elegiac and richly detailed new book, David Maraniss — who wrote biographies of Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and Roberto Clemente — conjures those boom years of his former hometown with novelistic ardor. Using overlapping portraits of Detroiters (from politicians to musicians and auto execs), he creates a mosaiclike picture of the city that has the sort of intimacy and tactile emotion that Larry McMurtry brought to his depictions of the Old West, and the gritty sweep of David Simon's HBO series "The Wire."

Except for an epilogue, "Once in a Great City" remains deliberately focused on the 18 months between autumn 1962 and spring 1964 — a period that emerges as one of the high points in Detroit's history as well as a pivotal moment, when the cracks were only just beginning to show and the city still seemed a place of "uncommon possibility."