Calico Joe – John Grisham

What’s this? John Grisham? Right on the heels of a tripartite Stephen King review? What’s happening? Have I become, gasp, a sellout?!

Have no fear, imaginary Internet friends, I’m still a miserable literary snob. As a matter of fact, I’m currently neck deep in Joyce Carol Oates’ new novel, and I’ve got DFW’s The Pale King and Don Delillo’s Mao II lined up next, so I’m sure I’ll review one of them at some point. Speaking of Delillo, Underworld is such a fucking amazing book. (Transition!) That prologue section is one of the most breathtaking pieces of fiction I’ve ever encountered. It expresses better than anything else out there exactly what it is that’s so magical about the tedious and saccharine sport of Baseball capital-B. I used to love baseball, had binders of trading cards, pitched in little league, played hours and hours of catch with my brother, yadda yadda. It was kind of a big deal. I even had a subscription to a weekly baseball newspaper and would spend hours pouring over the articles and pages of statistics. Something about it just tickled my brain. I’ve given it all up now, couldn’t even tell you who’s won the World Series in any year this past decade. But there still some vestigial yearning, some flicker of memory which lights up for the whole “baseball” thing. The prologue of Underworld captured the power of the sport and its integral place in American history with such crystalline precision, I can’t imagine anybody saying it better.

Especially not someone like John Grisham.

17316617Ouch, sick burn, man! (Also: Transition!) But seriously now. I was actually fairly pleased with Calico Joe. I mean, I only read it because I was bored at work and it was the only thing on the paperback shelf which looked even mildly tolerable. I read quite a lot of John Grisham in my day (teenage me: “oh the memories!”) and I have fairly positive memories of his stuff. However, I’ve never been glad that I revisited an author from my teenage years. Some things are best left to memory. Grisham kinda delivered though. Sure the writing is stiff and awkward – especially compared to a master like Delillo – and sure the plot and characters are simplistic (even childish, to be honest). But… I didn’t hate it.

Calico Joe is a story about baseball players and (abusive) father-son relationships. It’s about wasted opportunities and missed chances and could-have-beens. It’s about the ways people get so wrapped up in a thing (baseball, in this case) that they lose sight of their own humanity. And it’s also about the ways a thing (baseball, again) can bring people together. The book tells the history of the remarkable rookie career of fictional ballplayer Joe Castle, and of Warren Tracy, the washed-up pitcher who ends that all-too-brief career. It’s narrated by Paul Tracy, Joe Castle fan and Warren Tracy son/abusee. Here’s the deal: Warren is dying, and Paul wants his dad to apologize to Joe for ending his career. He tries to get them together, and reminisces about the old days.

It’s actually a pretty decent story, though the presentation is a touch artless. Grisham pulls off a handful of well-crafted moments, more than enough to keep me engaged with what’s going on. Unfortunately, Grisham can be counted on for at least one duff line in every few dozen. There was also an irritating self-righteous feel to it. Everything Joe Castle does is good, and everything Warren Tracy does is bad. There’s not a great deal of nuance to anything. Like I said, it’s childish. The book goes down real easy, but not every bite tastes all that great. (Food analogy! Yes please, more of those! They’re great in book reviews, and not at all irritating!)

Final analysis: Surprisingly tolerable, but don’t go out of your way to read it or anything. It helps if you have fond baseball memories, I guess. Have I mentioned that the prologue of Underworld is really great?

Oh, btw, this is not a novel. I don’t care what the fuck it says on the cover, Calico Joe: a novel is not repeat not a novel. It is a novella. Deal with it, John!


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