Wednesday, October 14, 2015

'Grant Park' mixes racial history, thriller

     Had Leonard Pitts Jr. entitled his new novel "Central Park" or "Golden Gate Park," had he set it in New York or San Francisco, it never would have touched my hands.
     But he called the book "Grant Park," prompting an editor to pluck it out of the endless slurry of galleys that flows into the newspaper, and jam it into my mailbox, where petty local pride made me agree to read it, if only for the pleasure of flagging the howling errors that Pitts, who lives in Maryland, would try to pass off as genuine Chicago color.
     Pitts is a syndicated columnist, and my first thought was: columnists can't write novels. I sure can't. They create a supercharged version of themselves and jiggle the resultant marionette through some improbable adventure. My sight was no doubt clouded by painful memories of Bob Greene's execrable "All Summer Long," with its cuties blundering up to SuperBob and confessing their admiration for his high-quality journalism.  Then I thought of Pete Hamill — his novels are nearly literary, meaning that they carry a whiff of actual existence. And Bill Granger's skilled thrillers. And Carl Hiaasen's funny Florida gothic.
     Hope bloomed. I possessed exactly two facts attached to Pitts' name when I opened the book. First, he wrote a strong, defiant column immediately after 9/11. And second, he's black, and it's an indication of the sort of white obliviousness so infuriating to Pitts that, even knowing this,  I was still mildly surprised to find his novel is about black people.
     At first it seemed like Pitts had fallen into the Bob Greene trap. His hero, Malcolm Marcus Toussaint, is a successful, almost adored columnist who has two Pulitzer Prizes, one more than Pitts himself. His newsroom includes people like Amy, a "20-something white girl" who tells him, "You're the whole reason I'm here," as if a career in journalism were a good thing. (I've had students share a version of that sentiment, closer to, "You led me to believe I could get a job," hissed through tears).
     It is Election Day, 2008. The book serves up surprise after surprise, and it's difficult to relate the plot without spoiling what, I'm glad to say, is an enjoyable cliffhanger. But I'll try.
Leonard Pitts Jr.
      Toussaint is tired of "white folks'
 bullshit" and writes a column saying so. Most papers in America would wave it into print it with a sigh and a few dashes, but the column is rejected, so Toussaint contrives to have it published anyway. He and his boss Bob Carson are summarily fired from the Chicago Post, the newspaper Pitts conjures up, perhaps not realizing that doing so risks pushing his book into the fantasy genre (while he's giving Chicago a third major newspaper he might as well add orcs and flying brooms and complete the effect.)
     Then Toussaint vanishes and Carson sets out to find him. There are too many coincidences—how did the guy on the tour boat wind up in that bar so quickly?—and the writing never soars, though Pitts does a solid job of navigating the perilous dilemma, heartbreak, frustration and irony of  being black in 2015.
     What redeems "Grant Park" is  Toussaint's backstory, delivered in textured flashbacks of Memphis, 1968, where his father was a garbage man in the midst of the sanitation workers' strike. Toussaint is there, at Martin Luther King's elbow, and so is Carson—his interracial love affair with fellow student Janeka unfolds poignantly. Their lone sex scene—we journalists are squeamish about sex—conveyed with all the fumbling and humiliation of real life.
     Back in 2008, we meet a pair of Carl Hiaasen-grade white supremacist low-lifes, one named Dwayne, which seems a requirement of some sort, who have a mad scheme to kill Barack Obama at Grant Park that night.
     Speaking of Grant Park. I did find my howlers, most geographical. "A place on Michigan Avenue," is described as being "about two blocks from Grant Park" which is akin to describing somewhere as being on Sheridan Road, two blocks west of Lake Michigan. In an afternote  Pitts claims such mistakes are intentional, and one does nudge the plot forward, but most have no use, plotwise, so that seems disingenuous. Chicago is a lot bigger than the shoebox diorama Pitts seems to have in mind.
     The Chicago Post newsroom also doesn't jibe with newsrooms as I understand them. As the popular Toussaint is abruptly shown the gate. I kept thinking of the stern don't-do-that-again finger wagging the Chicago Tribune gave Clarence Page in 2012 after he accepted $20,000 and was flown to Paris to speak at a rally for an Iranian terrorist group. His Post bosses never pause to worry about Jesse Jackson picketing the paper, a reminder to Pitts that it isn't only whites who can have trouble recognizing their own privilege.
    But those are quibbles. The bottom line is that ... here comes the money shot ... Leonard Pitts has written a taut thriller that weaves together a stark look at America's tortured racial past with a fast-paced tale of terrorist conspiracy and love rekindled.  

Leonard Pitts, Jr. will be speaking at the Harold Washington Public Library, 400 S. State Street, Wednesday, Oct. 14 at 6 p.m.

9 comments:

  1. It seems to be quit common for novels set in a real city to be vague about the locations where criminals live and crimes occur. Even though the author may put in a disclaimer, this is a work of fiction, any resemblance to actual people is coincidental, etc. It doesn't stop people from suing, if they perceive details in the novel accurately match themselves, and they are being portrayed as a character in the novel.

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    1. I don't know about that. It seems to me that novels set in New York are accurate down to which street corner is involved and often unmistakeably name names of malefactors large and small.

      John

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    2. Good point John! The second I read your comment I thought of Donald Westlake. Although any criminal worth his salt would pay money for a mention in one of his novels. You got to believe if Pitts locates the racist base of operation in Bridgeport or Uptown, say near Clark St. and Wilson. If it barely was a news blip, there will be someone named Dwayne living there with a history of physical altercations involving people of a different race, thinking he is the one. In any case I'm looking forward to a good read.

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    3. Hey! That's getting a little too close to home. I used to live at 1455 W. Wilson. No racists there. Just me and a bunch of Indians. Oops, Indigenous Americans, I meant to say.

      john

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  2. Aw come on, Neil. Pitts had to invent a paper for his purposes. If he made it the Trib (which syndicates him, although not often enough for me) or the Sun-Times, it would be quasi-slanderous.

    Maybe I'm just cranky because I'm feeling the burn from the line, "They create a supercharged version of themselves and jiggle the resultant marionette through some improbable adventure." You just described the plot of every novel I ever imagined writing, but never will.

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    1. There you are, Bitter S. It's been a while.

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  3. Just added "Grant Park" to my queue of books to be read. At my current rate, I should get to it in late summer/early fall of 2016.

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  4. Don't want to nitpick, but sometimes you would identify the top photo when it wasn't repeated in the text. Looked all over the page to find out the occasion depicted. Please help out us overly curious sorts.

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    1. Not at all. A Boston artist who was offering hugs last month on Daley Plaza. I have his name somewhere...

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