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Review: The Last Thing You Surrender, by Leonard Pitts, Jr.
Bolden, 2019. 500 pp. $17

When the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor, George Simon, a nineteen-year-old marine badly injured from a fall in a wounded warship, survives only because a Black messman, Eric Gordy, makes a superhuman effort to save his life. Though they’ve probably seen each other daily, George doesn’t know Eric’s name or anything else about the “messboy.” Growing up in a well-to-do Mobile, Alabama, home, George recognizes only two Black faces, both household servants. All others are invisible to him. Moreover, in the hours before a rescue team saves the small group of survivors in the sinking warship, Eric slips, falls, hits his head, and drops into the oily water, drowning before anyone can reach him.

Wracked by survivor’s guilt and determined to honor Eric Gordy’s heroism, George tells everyone who will listen about his savior’s courage and strength. But no good deed goes unpunished, for when George recovers enough from his injuries to walk on crutches, he’s sent home to Mobile with a mission. He’s to ask Eric’s widow, Thelma, who also lives there, to travel around the country, telling their story to raise war spirit among “the colored.”

To his credit, George balks. (The narrative never quite explains how he gets away with disobeying a direct order.) More importantly, when he visits Thelma, he sees at once the depth and intelligence missing in his fiancée, Sylvia, a beautiful airhead who uses racial slurs as casually as “hello” or “goodbye.” George’s attraction for Thelma remains largely unconscious. But her moral authority prompts him to entertain an idea he’s never encountered, that his race prejudice makes him less than the man he wants to be. And when he learns that Thelma’s parents were lynched and burned alive, which explains the unveiled hostility George meets in her older brother, Luther, the young marine begins to see how little he knows of life.

Dutifully, he tries to explain his confusion to Sylvia, who laughs in his face. Her reaction makes him think of how Alice and Benjamin, the two Black servants, must feel in the Simon home:

How many times, in the nearly 30 years that Benjy had been part of their household, had he been passing in a hallway or lingering invisibly in a corner and heard one of them—Sylvia, Mother, Father, even George himself—say that word? Say it laughingly. Say it matter-of-factly. Say it with less thought than you’d give to waving at a fly.

A more potent, timely premise would be hard to find, and, for the most part, the various narratives retain power until the end. The reader follows George as he returns to combat, first on Guadalcanal; Thelma, as she goes to work in a Navy yard, spray-painting warships; and Luther, after a draft notice requires him to fight for a country he detests.

A tank from Company D, 761st Tank Battalion, in Coburg, Germany, late April 1945. The 761st, among the finest armored units in the U.S. Army, was almost entirely Black (courtesy National Archives and Records Administration, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

In this novel depicting wartime, I like the Stateside narratives the best. The racial conflicts at the shipyard and at Luther’s army camp call out on every page, Just what the hell is wrong with our country? Pitts takes no prisoners, nor should he, and though many plot points seem predictable, what he does with them lends a dash of the unexpected. In the main, the story works.

The battlefield sequences ring true, yet the military narratives surrounding them feel truncated, as though the author doesn’t want to linger. He’s got places to go and people to see. You can understand, considering that at five hundred pages, The Last Thing You Surrender is plenty long as it is. Nevertheless, about halfway through, the novel loses some immediacy. It’s as though the story must pick up pace, or . . . . Or what?

I suspect that the search for redemption is at fault here, and the book has to get going so that it can happen. You can tell which characters will see the light, though I’m not sure they all earn their epiphanies, which come about through witnessing or experiencing degradation so powerful it shakes them to their roots. Maybe Pitts is saying that’s what it takes to change; you have to see just how vicious people can be before you can give up hatred.

Not everyone here does, and the violent racists in this novel are duly unrepentant. But Pitts immerses those willing to open their eyes in events that are so well known they’re practically tropes, sort of like ticking boxes off a list of meaningful historical incidents that everyone has heard of.

That’s my major objection to The Last Thing You Surrender, how the narrative grunts and strains to give characters famous external circumstances by which they can reach internal change. Is that how it happens? And if it does, why rely on such events, when everyday observation, if written vividly, might work as well—and, because it’s unexpected, carry more tension?

That said, the novel asks that all-important question—what will it take before we treat each other respectfully, righteously?—and Pitts offers a thought-provoking answer. Read it.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.