Whatever its melodramatic excesses, Pitts’ novel, with urgency and passion, makes readers aware that the mistakes of the...

GRANT PARK

In the aftermath of this summer’s racially motivated mass murder in Charleston, South Carolina, by an avowed white supremacist, there’s near-eerie prescience in Pitts’ historical novel, which juxtaposes events 40 years apart in the lives of its characters.

On Election Day 2008, Malcolm Toussaint, an African-American columnist for a Chicago daily, sets his career on fire by hacking an incendiary column about how he’s “tired of white folks’ bullshit” onto his paper’s front page the day the country’s about to elect its first black president. (Malcolm, embittered by a police shooting of an unarmed black man, is convinced Barack Obama’s going to lose, no matter what the polls say.) His white editor, Bob Carson, whose computer was used without his permission to post the column, is fired, and he sets off to have it out with Malcolm. But that confrontation may have to wait because Malcolm’s been abducted by a pair of white supremacists who plan to use the columnist in a terrorist attack on the eponymous park where the Obama campaign plans to celebrate its triumph that night. This Hitchcock-ian suspense story is interspersed with flashbacks to 1968, when a younger Malcolm, then a militant college dropout, encounters Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil rights leader's ill-fated trip to Memphis to aid striking garbage workers. There are also scenes during that same year of a younger, more idealistic Bob, whose interracial romance is sorely stress-tested by events in Memphis leading up to King’s murder. Pitts, a Pulitzer Prize–winning columnist making his third foray into fiction (Before I Forget, 2009; Freeman, 2012), sometimes seems to strain for effect while moving two very different narratives along. And the book's setup seems almost too prefabricated. (Yes, there were older black activists who neither liked nor entirely trusted Obama that year, but hardly any of them doubted toward the end that he’d win.) Yet the novel’s lapses are all but overwhelmed by its breakneck momentum, and it's infused with vivid characterizations and canny verisimilitude, especially in the ’68 passages. For example: in the relative hagiography of the present day, it’s hard for younger readers to believe that King didn’t enjoy unilateral support from all African-Americans, especially at the time of his death. Hence the sardonic labeling of MLK as “De Lawd” by Malcolm and other Black Power advocates.

Whatever its melodramatic excesses, Pitts’ novel, with urgency and passion, makes readers aware that the mistakes of the past are neglected at the future’s peril.

Pub Date: Oct. 13, 2015

ISBN: 978-1-932841-91-6

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Bolden/Agate

Review Posted Online: July 16, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2015

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A magnificent achievement: a novel that is, by turns, both optimistic and fatalistic, idealistic without being naïve.

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THE OVERSTORY

Powers’ (Orfeo, 2014, etc.) 12th novel is a masterpiece of operatic proportions, involving nine central characters and more than half a century of American life.

In this work, Powers takes on the subject of nature, or our relationship to nature, as filtered through the lens of environmental activism, although at its heart the book is after more existential concerns. As is the case with much of Powers’ fiction, it takes shape slowly—first in a pastiche of narratives establishing the characters (a psychologist, an undergraduate who died briefly but was revived, a paraplegic computer game designer, a homeless vet), and then in the kaleidoscopic ways these individuals come together and break apart. “We all travel the Milky Way together, trees and men,” Powers writes, quoting the naturalist John Muir. “In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.” The idea is important because what Powers means to explore is a sense of how we become who we are, individually and collectively, and our responsibility to the planet and to ourselves. Nick, for instance, continues a project begun by his grandfather to take repeated photographs of a single chestnut tree, “one a month for seventy-six years.” Pat, a visionary botanist, discovers how trees communicate with one another only to be discredited and then, a generation later, reaffirmed. What links the characters is survival—the survival of both trees and human beings. The bulk of the action unfolds during the timber wars of the late 1990s, as the characters coalesce on the Pacific coast to save old-growth sequoia from logging concerns. For Powers, however, political or environmental activism becomes a filter through which to consider the connectedness of all things—not only the human lives he portrays in often painfully intricate dimensions, but also the biosphere, both virtual and natural. “The world starts here,” Powers insists. “This is the merest beginning. Life can do anything. You have no idea.”

A magnificent achievement: a novel that is, by turns, both optimistic and fatalistic, idealistic without being naïve.

Pub Date: April 3, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-393-63552-2

Page Count: 512

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: Jan. 23, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2018

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Tinny perhaps, but still a minutely rendered and impressively steady feminist vision of apocalypse.

THE HANDMAID'S TALE

The time is the not-so-distant future, when the US's spiraling social freedoms have finally called down a reaction, an Iranian-style repressive "monotheocracy" calling itself the Republic of Gilead—a Bible-thumping, racist, capital-punishing, and misogynistic rule that would do away with pleasure altogether were it not for one thing: that the Gileadan women, pure and true (as opposed to all the nonbelieving women, those who've ever been adulterous or married more than once), are found rarely fertile.

Thus are drafted a whole class of "handmaids," whose function is to bear the children of the elite, to be fecund or else (else being certain death, sent out to be toxic-waste removers on outlying islands). The narrative frame for Atwood's dystopian vision is the hopeless private testimony of one of these surrogate mothers, Offred ("of" plus the name of her male protector). Lying cradled by the body of the barren wife, being meanwhile serviced by the husband, Offred's "ceremony" must be successful—if she does not want to join the ranks of the other disappeared (which include her mother, her husband—dead—and small daughter, all taken away during the years of revolt). One Of her only human conduits is a gradually developing affair with her master's chauffeur—something that's balanced more than offset, though, by the master's hypocritically un-Puritan use of her as a kind of B-girl at private parties held by the ruling men in a spirit of nostalgia and lust. This latter relationship, edging into real need (the master's), is very effectively done; it highlights the handmaid's (read Everywoman's) eternal exploitation, profane or sacred ("We are two-legged wombs, that's all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices"). Atwood, to her credit, creates a chillingly specific, imaginable night-mare. The book is short on characterization—this is Atwood, never a warm writer, at her steeliest—and long on cynicism—it's got none of the human credibility of a work such as Walker Percy's Love In The Ruins. But the scariness is visceral, a world that's like a dangerous and even fatal grid, an electrified fence.

Tinny perhaps, but still a minutely rendered and impressively steady feminist vision of apocalypse.

Pub Date: Feb. 17, 1985

ISBN: 038549081X

Page Count: -

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: Sept. 16, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 1985

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