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Review: Leonard Pitts Jr.'s 'Grant Park' a fast-paced political thriller

Readers of Leonard Pitts Jr.'s nationally syndicated columns for the Miami Herald know that the Pulitzer Prize winner is a thoughtful, incisive commentator on race, politics, parenting and many other topics.

With Grant Park, he reveals another talent: writing a gripping contemporary thriller.

Grant Park is Pitts' third novel, after Freeman, about a runaway slave searching for his long-lost wife in the aftermath of the Civil War, and Before I Forget, a family drama spanning several decades.

As Grant Park begins, Malcolm Toussaint has had enough. A Pulitzer-winning columnist for a fictional Chicago newspaper and (like Pitts) a black man who writes often on racial issues and has become a spokesman on the national stage, Malcolm has written one more column about an unarmed black man killed by police — and received one more tiresome deluge of hate mail, brimming with racist vitriol and lousy grammar.

But this time he snaps. Malcolm is 60 but feels 80, his wife has been dead two years, his grown children live out in California, and his wall full of awards and his weekly radio show and his bestselling books just don't seem to mean what they did.

So he blows it all up. He writes an incendiary column: "I'm sick and tired of white folks' bulls---." His longtime editor and friend, Bob Carson, who is white, refuses to run it. Malcolm goes to other editors, to the publisher, and they all say no.

So late at night, he goes back to the office. He knows Bob's computer password. He strips another story off the front page and puts his column there. He knows his career will be over, but he does it anyway.

When Bob awakens that morning, he gets two jolts: One is the sight of Malcolm's column on 1A, and the other is an email from a long-lost love asking him to meet her for lunch that day. When he gets to the newsroom, he discovers that Malcolm's act of rebellion has gotten both of them fired. He's furious enough, he thinks, to strangle his friend — except that Malcolm is missing. His red Corvette has been discovered on a city street, crashed and abandoned, its driver nowhere to be found.

Oh, and just to make the whole situation more interesting: It's Election Day, 2008, and Barack Obama is scheduled to speak that night, in what the polls suggest will be a victory speech, at the title park in Chicago.

Just another day in the newsroom.

Malcolm has been kidnapped by two white supremacists, a hapless pair of misfits like the ones that make headlines for crimes such as the church shootings in Charleston, S.C., and so many others. Dwayne McLarty is a meth head with mother issues; Clarence Pym is a 400-pound giant of a man with a mentality more like that of a child. They call each other "Captain" and "Sergeant" and hero-worship Oklahoma City terrorist Timothy McVeigh — so much so they have an armored van filled with a gigantic fertilizer bomb and a plan to drive it into Grant Park that night.

Kidnapping Malcolm is part of that plan to make themselves famous, which is so daft it would be laughable if it weren't also so potentially deadly. Unfortunately, you don't have to be one bit smart to kill people.

Pitts intercuts that increasingly suspenseful situation in the present, with Malcolm trying to stop the would-be killers and Bob trying to find him, with scenes set four decades earlier, when both men were civil rights activists in the South.

In 1968, Malcolm is a Black Panther-style radical, returning to his hometown of Memphis to see his father. Their relationship is fractious, not least because Malcolm is ashamed that his father is a sanitation worker. As the son returns, the father and his co-workers are in the midst of the strike that brings Martin Luther King Jr. to the city to support it — and to meet his fate in an assassin's rifle sight.

Bob is "a dentist's son from Minneapolis who had spurned acceptance letters from USC and Yale to attend a small Christian academy no one ever heard of in northwest Mississippi." There he earnestly works to enroll black voters and falls in love with another activist, a young black woman named Janeka Lattimore — the woman who, in the novel's present day, emails him out of the blue after 40 years for that lunch.

Pitts does a skillful job of building tension in the novel's historical sections as well as on Election Day — that portion of the book takes place at breakneck pace in about 24 hours. He also does something not every political thriller writer does: builds believable, complex characters. Even the despicable Dwayne and Clarence, who could have been the flattest of stereotypes, get humanizing backstories.

Grant Park boasts something else few other thrillers can claim: journalists as action heroes. Talk about fantasy fulfillment.

Contact Colette Bancroft at cbancroft@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.

Grant Park

By Leonard Pitts Jr.

Agate Bolden, 400 pages, $24.95

Meet the author

Leonard Pitts Jr. will be a featured author at the 23rd annual Tampa Bay Times Festival of Reading on Oct. 24 at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg; festivalofreading.com.

Review: Leonard Pitts Jr.'s 'Grant Park' a fast-paced political thriller 10/07/15 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 7, 2015 10:56am]
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