Reviewer John J. Hohn:
John is a frequent contributor to web sites dedicated to writing and
publishing. Raised in Yankton, SD, he graduated with a degree in
English from St. John’s University (MN) in 1961. He is the father
of four sons and a daughter and a stepfather to a son. He and his
wife divide their time each year between Southport and West
Jefferson, NC. To learn more about John FOLLOW HERE
Author: Leonard Pitts, Jr.
Publisher: Agate Publishing
Malcolm Toussaint is a haunted man. He was in position to save Martin Luther King from assassination but failed to move fast enough get King out of harm’s way. Only nineteen years old on that fateful balcony in Memphis in April, 1968, the tragedy lodges in his subconscious. Its sting charges back into his awareness whenever he feels he hasn’t tried hard enough – which is most of the time. In his role as an internationally recognized Pulitzer Prize winning columnist for The Chicago Post, Toussaint exhausts himself in trying to bring enlightenment and understanding into the racial strife rampant in the United States. Forty years of trying wear him down. Frustration finally wins out.
Grant Park by author Leonard Pitts, Jr. follows Toussaint, a young, bright African-American, along with several of his contemporaries, through the decades beginning with the King assassination and culminating in Barack Obama’s 2008 triumph as the first African-American to be elected President. (Yes, readers will wonder about the autobiographical nature of this powerful novel.)
The book begins on the eve of the election. Convinced Obama cannot win, Toussaint rips off a column that screams of his despair with white America. When his white editor, Bob Carson, refuses to print it, Toussaint goes over his head to Lydia Barnett, the African-American Editor-in-Chief. “Don’t you try to out-black me,” she scolds, realizing the Toussaint piece is too inflammatory. Toussaint storms off, downs a few beers and returns late at night, armed with Carlson’s password to the composition room, and plugs his column into the front page despite his editors’ rejections.
Readers, especially those whose first vote was cast for JFK, will be gripped immediately by this fast paced story. Toussaint’s inflammatory column may leave some liberal oldsters wondering why the fuss. Haven’t we all tired of the bullshit? Perhaps that’s easier to write in 2015 than 2008, but for those who have been profoundly disheartened over Ferguson, Baltimore, Eric Garner, the continued rash of police shootings, etc, Toussaint’s column speaks for everyone who has hoped for more.
The paper reacts by firing Bob Carlson, the 59 year old editor who gave away his password. With Carlson, Pitts begins another compelling story. Carlson, an idealistic white kid from Minnesota, falls in love with a beautiful, bright African-American girl, Janeka Lattimore, and the two work diligently to increase voter registration. In 1968, their courtship required courage. Yet, many things go their way. Carlson’s family is gracious, supportive and accepting. It is not enough, however.
“I have to be with my own people,” she shouts in breaking up with Bob.
“I thought I was your people, too.” he replies.
Janeka doesn’t break up with Carson, instead, as Pitts writes, “She breaks him.”
Pitts is a master of timing. Just when the reader expects Toussaint to face his editors about the way he shanghaied the front page, he is abducted by two white low-life racists who plan to explode a bomb in Grant Park when President-Elect Barack Obama appears to make his acceptance speech. Thus begins the first probing explication of one dimension of the racial conflict examined by Pitts; i.e. bottom of the barrel whites versus top of the barrel blacks. Lower economic level blacks are represented by Toussaint’s father, a Memphis sanitation worker whose demand is to be treated as a human being. His protest sign proclaims, “I AM A Man.” His son, a black power advocate, derides his father’s efforts as anemic.
Pitts dramatizes the diseased levels of the conflict between the races when Toussaint makes his explanation to his African-American boss, Lydia Barnett. Barnett, being black, understands what “it” is that has so exhausted her columnist.
“It” is the near instinctual recognition that we differ, and the difference, despite all evidence to the contrary, is not to be trusted. “It” is the reason the lab technician let you wait in the lobby. Why the cabbie passed you by. Why you did not get the promotion. “It” is still there, every day, living in the minds of white and black alike and differs only in degree. “Black people,” Malcolm reflects, “often cited race to explain stuff race had nothing to do with.” Pitts demonstrates repeatedly that the same holds true for whites.
Grant Park is a brilliant work. Pitts knows his subject. The only detracting flaw is one most readers will not notice. Park fails too frequently to maintain the integrity – the metaperspective – of his narrator. An omniscient narrator speaks about characters, but never for them. A narrator sustains authority by being objective. When, for example, the nasty, white-supremacist Dwayne wants to shoot the cab driver, a sentence reads: “He really wanted to shoot the prick.” The sentence is in the author’s voice up until the word “prick.” “Prick” is Dwayne’s word. Dwayne jumps the narrator’s line – hijacks it. Characters jump the narrator’s lines again and again. The result is distracting and weakens the narrator’s voice.
As to his power, Pitts rises frequently to the level of pure poetry. Consider one example: “A fatigue older than rivers rode the curve of a closed smile.” Readers are treated to lines like this throughout.
His description of the riots in Memphis from, not one, but three points of view, is riveting. Janeka and Carlson run for the safety. Toussaint’s father despairs at the chaos that is ruining his protest. Toussaint joins in the vandalism only later to regret his actions. Pitts’ characters are believable, deep and richly human. He writes with confidence in the voices of his young, his old, his white and his non-white characters.
Grant Park is a monumental work, so all-encompassing in scope that reviewers will be hard-pressed to do it justice. Pitt’s passion for a solution holds strong to the end of his novel even as his central character seems to give up. Readers will find Grant Park is real. From beginning to end it shows us an illness that seems to defy a cure. Perhaps as our children play together, the day will one day arrive when, despite even our slightest misgivings, we will recognize the humanity in one another. Pitts is there. He, for one, has shown that we are the same.