The Grisham Experiment
I don’t understand the swirl of hate surrounding John Grisham, master of the legal thriller and airport read. He has gotten millions to pursue an activity they normally consider as enjoyable as ditch digging. (My cousin once joked that the only two books he had read were Freckle Juice and The Firm.) And I will admit that if you’re transitioning into the world of adult books, you could do worse than Grisham. As a teenager, The Firm and The Pelican Brief served as my introduction to the concept of reading as entertainment.
After those two books, I got bored. All the stories started to sound the same; seriously, how many plots involving attractive, idealistic young lawyers can a reader endure? Apparently, Grisham got tired of writing the same old thing. Since 2001, he has shown some versatility. Among his attempts: a serious novel (A Painted House), a collection of short stories (Ford County), and two sports-related novels (Bleachers and Playing for Pizza).
I came across Playing for Pizza while working at Borders in 2007, where I dismissed it out of habit. Then, a couple of years ago, housesitting for friends and desperate for a bedtime read, I plucked a paperback copy from their bookshelf. I plowed through seventy pages before calling it a night, which was surprising since I half-expected to slam the book down while cursing America’s best-seller culture. Could Grisham write a compelling sports novel? I wanted to find out. About a week ago, I devoted the better part of an afternoon to reading Playing for Pizza.
James Thurber once wrote that writing at night is a terrible practice as the light of day exposes every flaw. The same theory applies to reading John Grisham novels.
Most third-string quarterbacks in the NFL are anonymous. Not the book’s hero, Rick Dockery of the Cleveland Browns, who is thrown into service during the AFC Championship Game with a seventeen-point lead in the fourth quarter. Three interceptions and a concussion later, the Browns have lost the game and Dockery is a national joke. He’s also out of a job. The unpleasant prospect of retirement—and actually using his physical education degree—looms large. Dockery’s agent manages to find a job with an unlikely employer: the Parma Panthers in Italy. The client isn’t thrilled, but it’s a steady paycheck for five months and a chance to lay low.
In Italy, Rick is immediately loved by his inexperienced teammates and learns to appreciate a new way of life. Playing for Pizza should be a sprightly, introspective read about the folly of prolonged youth and the different forms redemption can take. But Grisham refuses to tailor his usual kinetic approach, which employs twists and turns to haul narrative ass. Consequently, the novel reads as if gun-toting henchmen are chasing Dockery. Problems and quandaries are shot at our protagonist, who ducks and avoids them. Lessons and moral clarity are picked up covertly and with craftiness. After spending the night visiting an injured teammate at the hospital, Dockery suddenly dumps his petulant attitude and sees the benefits of teamwork. He adjusts to Italy’s culture by hanging out in cafes and driving the pre-dawn-streets of Parma, which is the behavior of spies. It doesn’t help that in his race to the acknowledgments section, Grisham gives Dockery zero depth, reducing him to a haircut with a golden arm. When Dockery decked a malicious sportswriter—“A disheveled sports geek who couldn’t play the games and now made a living criticizing those who did,” is Grisham’s less-than-masterful description—I gave up expecting to encounter any character resembling a human being.
It gets worse. There are two beautiful love interests for Dockery, both of whom have interesting personal problems that Grisham deftly avoids. He writes of sultry Georgia peach Livvy: “She preferred not to talk about [her family’s issues]. And she did a remarkable job ignoring her family, as long as they ignored her.” Livvy also loves sightseeing, so not only is she dull, she sounds like she was brainwashed by Eugene Fodor. Grisham also falls under the tour guide spell, filling pages and pages with descriptions of Parma and its food, culture and artifacts. These will thrill anybody enchanted by the Olive Garden or other people’s travel videos. The writing itself, especially during the game scenes, is flabby and stuffed with clichés. Examples:
“It’s a long way from Browns Stadium in Cleveland.” (As opposed to Browns Stadium in Kuwait? On Mars?)
“Here was what every coach wanted—emotion, fire, and anger!”
“The Panthers were ready for war."
"This was football the way it was meant to be.”
“Every play was the last of the season, and no one yielded an inch.”
Grisham clearly isn’t Philip Roth, Michael Chabon, or even Scott Turow. He’s not a prose stylist. He’s not exposing social ills. Grisham is a distraction during a delayed flight or a sinus infection, not a rich terrain full of literary pearls for curious readers to discover. But here’s the secret: There are so many writers—Jonathan Tropper and Tom Perrotta to name two—who can write fiction that is enlightening and entertaining to read. I don’t begrudge Grisham his popularity. But I do wish that his readers wouldn’t settle for familiarity. That’s great for buying mayonnaise and snow tires, but not for living a fulfilling reading life. Fans of Grisham need a change since it’s clear that the author has no intention of doing so.
Books mentioned in this column:
Pete Croatto’s essays, criticism, and humor writing have appeared in MAD, Publishers Weekly, BookPage, and the (Newark) Star-Ledger. He also reviews movies for ICON and FilmCritic.com, and maintains a movie blog. Pete currently lives in central New Jersey with three bookshelves made by his dad and an overused library card. Contact Pete.