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Review: 'Grant Park'

Novel offers thought-provoking looking at race relations

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By Rob Cline, correspondent

Leonard Pitts, Jr. is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist whose work can be found on the Insight pages of The Gazette. He is also a novelist, and his new book, “Grant Park,” offers a deep dive into the issues and ideas that often surface in his column.

Pitts introduces us to Malcom Toussaint, who like Pitts is a decorated and admired African-American newspaper columnist. Toussaint, finally pushed too far by the racist reaction one of his columns inspires, writes an unpublishable screed that all of the paper’s higher-ups reject. He finds a way to publish it anyway. The column is emblazoned on the front page of Toussaint’s Chicago paper on Election Day, 2008. A certain senator from Illinois stands on the cusp of history.

And that’s just the beginning. Pitts has a layered and complex story to tell. Much of the story focuses on the primary characters’ lives in and near Memphis in 1968 — the time and place of a contentious sanitation strike and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. History-making events 40 years apart provide the tent poles for Pitts’ tale.

“Grant Park” is a thriller. It has all the hallmarks of the genre, with characters under extreme duress as a point of no return draws ever nearer. But it is also an insightful social commentary. Pitts is skilled enough to ensure that his story never becomes mere window dressing for the themes he addresses, but he also ensures those themes are as clear as they are thought-provoking.

Pitts doesn’t shy away from complexity or from exploring how individuals on the same side of an issue can find themselves unable to bridge the gulf between them. He lays bare the ways in which grievance — whether justified or unjustified — can lead to extreme views and violent behavior. He calls attention to our tendency to demonize and stereotype whole groups of people while losing sight of the myriad differences between individuals. And he insists that even the most loathsome of those individuals can, and perhaps should, provoke empathy and compassion.

All of which is to say, in “Grant Park” nothing is merely black or white.

BOOK READING

What: Leonard Pitts Jr. will read from “Grant Park” as part of the Iowa City Book Festival

When: 1 p.m. Oct. 8

Where: Iowa City Public Library, 123 S. Linn St., Iowa City

Cost: Free

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