Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Book Review: Calico Joe by John Grisham

For those of you that know me, and I mean really know me, when asked if you knew who my favorite author was, you say something like: "pssh... that John Grisham guy."  You would, no doubt, have a tinge of exasperation in your voice as you have more than likely heard me recommend his books to you on countless occasions.  Sadly, however, many of you have not taken my advice to read his books and experience the brilliance with which he tells his stories.  Perhaps it was because you do not like crime or lawyer type books, and that is not a terrible position to have.  However, Grisham has now released Calico Joe, a novel that involves baseball, family, and forgiveness.  If you could not identify with any of my recommendations before, believe me that if you are interested in or have a passion for any of those three topics just mentioned, you will adore this book.

Calico Joe is the story of a boy, Paul Tracey, the son of fictional New York Mets pitcher Warren Tracey, a below average, mean-spirited, child-beating drunk who happens to have enough raw talent to make a major league roster.  As most 11 year-old boys do, Paul idolizes the best players in the game of baseball.  In 1973, when the book takes place, these players include Willie Mays, Catfish Hunter, Tom Seaver, and Hank Aaron.  All of a sudden, a Chicago Cub first baseman named Joe Castle is brought up mid-season and starts breaking all kinds of records.  Joe, who is from Calico, Arkansas, becomes young Paul's new hero.  When Warren Tracey and Joe Castle finally meet in a game, something happens that will change the lives of both men and that of young Paul Tracey.

Compared to his other novels, Calico Joe is relatively short, a little less than 200 pages.  However, while the book is roughly half the length of his usual work, Grisham is able to convey twice the amount of emotion and internal conflict than in any of his previous work.  Perhaps it is because readers can relate more to baseball, broken families, and crushed dreams better than they can a young lawyer who is caught up in a multi-million dollar conspiracy, but there is just something about Calico Joe that I feel speaks to every individual person, whether they are a baseball fan or not.

The book is formatted so that it is told from both the first and third person points of view.  Paul Tracey recalls what happens on that fateful summer day in 1973 as he deals with his father's approaching death and the feelings (or lack there of) that he experiences as a result.  The experience of the reader, then, is a phenomena of reading a sort of story within a story as they anxiously await knowledge of both what has happened and what will happen.  Right from the onset, the reader is aware that something awful is going to, or rather, has already happened.  One story has already happened and is being revealed to the reader at the narrator's discretion; the other unfolds in "real time" and the reader finds out what happens along with the characters.  It appears to be so simple when presented on the page, but quite brilliant when one sits down and thinks about it.

The aspect of the book that I found most impressive was the degree to which I felt Paul's hatred and anger towards his father right along with him.  It is not difficult, I suppose, for a reader to dislike or hate a character who is cruel, abusive, and downright mean.  However, Grisham tells his story in such a way that I felt that Warren had not only hurt Paul, but also me... personally.  The deep, unforgiving execration Paul felt towards his father is something I found myself feeling as well.  No book has provided me with that kind of experience, feeling along with a character as if I was the character.

Why might this be?  Perhaps it is because baseball season is just started and I am feeling nostalgic about the many happy memories I have watching, playing and cheering with my own dad, while Warren completely ruins the game for his son.  To me, baseball is one of the staples of my childhood, something that I don't remember not liking or playing.  To see a father take what is, in a word, sacred to me and my memories of my dad and ruin it for his son offends me to an astounding degree.  It takes a special storyteller to provoke such connections, and Grisham does this for anyone who has baseball memories with his/her parent.

This book was released to the public today and I finished it in roughly three hours.  It is not a long and complicated read; it is not simple either.  I am sure people who have had poor relationships with their fathers may find this a hard book to read.  However, the story is easy to follow and beautifully told, showing once again why John Grisham is the best storyteller in America.

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