Monday, June 24, 2013
By Robin Shukla

He was a lawyer practising in a small town in Mississippi, squeezing a few hours to get his stories done, until he graduated into a spectacular writer of the legal thriller. His protagonists shake the courts to ensure that justice has been served. However, John Grisham has sometimes sidestepped the classification to write, what many could term, ‘offbeat’ novels and short stories. Playing for Pizza, Ford County Stories clearly do fall into that category, while The Confession almost does. 

Where bars don’t serve alcohol, just great coffee
Playing for Pizza is just too far away from the kind of books that John Grisham is generally known for, and hence the reactions, understandably, ranged from the shocked to the downright derisive, particularly from those looking forward to the courtroom drama that has become the hallmark of almost all of Grisham’s books.

Given that he stepped out of expected form, he has committed another (uncalculated) risk, irking hardcore Americans football fans by airlifting Rick Dockery, a failed NFL quarterback all the way from Ohio to play semi-pro football in Parma in Italy. That the stadium in Parma accommodates but three thousand non-paying spectators is cause for further angst.

The story has Dockery in a hospital bed, with a concussion and assorted injuries, suffered during a crucial match between Cleveland Browns that he played for, and the Broncos, trying to figure out what went wrong on the field.

He has further and substantial risk to life and limb from angry Browns fans for fumbling his passes, not once, but thrice, before an audience of eighty thousand in the stadium and millions watching on television, as he turned the game they had almost won into a disastrous loss, all in the last eleven minutes. Fans have stormed the hospital wanting to lay their hands on him, while others have held demonstrations holding placards stating ‘Legalise Euthanasia’ and ‘Pull the Plug Now!’ Though he is written off by the media, and now the source of much public embarrassment, his agent Arnie keeps making efforts to get him signed to a new team. Arnie knows what most football coaches have strongly suspected, that Dockery has a morbid fear of contact and being tackled by players, and flees to safety to avoid getting run into.

But as luck will have it, a call to a coach named Sam Russo in Italy changes fortunes. He is ready to accept Dockery as a quarterback for his team in Parma. The prospects are very modest, as an American, he would get meal money and maybe some rent. The local players, as it is, settle for pizza and beer after the game. They come from all walks of life -  airline pilot, engineer, truck driver, dentist, property agent – and constitute the Parma Panthers. When Dockery anxiously asks whether they know about his fiasco in the last game, he is told that they are delighted to have him. As Russo announces, “These guys have never won the Italian Super Bowl, and they’re convinced this is the year.” The brief is hence set for what is expected of him.

A section of readers who have straitjacketed Grisham as a writer who finally takes them into the courtroom, have assailed him for coming up with a travelogue of sorts, a ‘promo piece’ for Italy. But those who have read his powerful effort, The Broker, will know his affinity for that country is not new, and definitely not a passing fancy. He does take a very close look here at the landscape, the people, the cuisine, music and the women, which probably made some impatient critics and reviewers lose focus from a compassionate story of a player rediscovering himself and bonding with people who do not speak or even understand his language, and would enjoy playing a good game and having a pizza after that.

There are pleasant insights: Most Italian cities are sort of configured around a central square, called a piazza. This is Piazza Garibaldi, lots of shops and cafes and foot traffic. The Italians spend a lot of time sitting at the outdoor cafes sipping espresso and reading. Not a bad habit.

Reading about the food that Dockery gets to savour may prompt many readers to get to an Italian eatery in Mumbai while this observation after Dockery’s tells his team mates that he is no great shakes as a player: Sam frowned and rendered. He would explain later that the Italians take a dim view of modesty and self-deprecation. 

Playing for Pizza
By John Grisham
Arrow Books (Random House)

There’s a whole world in this small little place
Ford County Stories by John Grisham sees the author go even farther away from his established genre of intense situations finally fought out in the courtroom, into short story writing. Those who will have read Grisham’s first novel, A Time To Kill, may recall this fictional town called Clanton in Ford County, located deep down south in Mississippi.

The stories have impact, the people are simple and that is a complex enough situation – Blood Drive is the first story about three lads going off to donate blood for an injured man, after which they spend money received for selling blood at a strip joint. One of the suited and booted corporate types from outside gropes a lap dancer, prompting the boys to retaliate, and a near riot ensues in which they get their skulls cracked. Fetching Raymond sees two boys and their mother visiting their brother on death row in a prison.  Fish Files sees a great divorce lawyer, tackling problems with alcohol, stumbling in his own marriage, sitting before a counsellor, before breaking free.   

Each story is engrossing and a testimony that Grisham can be great at just about any format of writing.

Ford County Stories
by John Grisham
Arrow Books (Random House)
Price Rs.399

When the law is a victim of the colour bar
The Confession by John Grisham sees courtroom drama, except for the fact that it does not have the kind of ending we are typically used to.  Travis Boyette is seated at St Mark’s chapel, insisting that senior pastor Keith Schroeder speak to him. Keith and his wife Dana are shocked to learn that the man is a serial sex offender. Even more shocking is his confession that someone innocent is going to die four days later, executed for a rape and murder that Travis had committed nine years before. A popular school teacher was kidnapped, raped and strangled to death for which a black man, Donte Drumm, was charged and sentenced to death. Travis tells the couple that he was the offender.

The reason for this change of heart is a malignant brain tumour that has left him with just a few months to live, and he does not want to take all the bad things he has done to the grave. The Schroeders trawl through hundreds of pages of documents pertaining to the case in a bid to save Drumm’s life, and with Travis’ confession try to prevent lawyers, judges and politicians from executing an innocent man.

The Confession
by John Grisham
Arrow Books (Random House)

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