Friday, 13 April 2012


NOTE: I read Calico Joe as part of my essay on baseball fiction for BBC Radio 4's Open Book last Sunday, you can link to my post about that here, and it may still be available on IPlayer if you live in Britain. I thought I'd give it its own space here, and I may look back and dig out my review of Bleachers and post it on this site later.

In Calico Joe, John Grisham effortlessly combines two of the main strains of baseball literature: the update of the classic, mythic hero tale (The Natural, The Year The Yankees Lost The Pennant) and the metaphor of baseball as the key to the relationship between father and sons (the poet Donald Hall's Fathers Playing Catch With Sons). It's 1973, and a powerhouse rookie from Calico, Arkansas, Joe Castle (note the Arthurian overtones) is tearing up the National League. He becomes every kid's favourite player, even young Paul Tracey, whose father Warren is a pitcher for the New York Mets. Warren is not much of a pitcher, by big league standards, and even less of a husband and father, and it when the on-field confrontation between hero and father takes place that Paul's relationship to both his parent and the game of baseball is changed forever. Or almost forever.

It is when Paul discovers that his father is dying that the story begins, with the childhood element told in his flashbacks, and those of Clarence Rock, a local newspaperman from Calico, whom Paul visits. Which take place in the present, as Paul tries to sort out his own relationship with his father while putting the story together.

I've reviewed Grisham's crime fiction many times, and he is a story-teller who has the uncanny ability to keep the reader engrossed even as characters or situations become cliched. He skirts that here—much of what we read we've read before, and at times Rock's cracker-barrel personality and Grisham's own paeans to baseball can seem very familiar indeed. Part of that is also because baseball was part of his (and my) childhood when it still was the 'national pastime', and thus it resonates with echoes of an America we now feel is lost—that has been a theme of many writers over the past few decades—but it also reflects Paul's own life, and the loss of both baseball and his father reflect a deeper loss for him.

And overall, the effect rings more true than not, and the emotions real, and this is in part because the characters are framed by their own reticence; part of the story is the tale of getting men to admit their feelings, and in that sense Grisham's limitations work to make it more believeable. He also manages to keep the tone pitched perfectly—there is an element of suspense which becomes obvious early on if you understand baseball, and will be more of a shock the less you do, but it is rarely saccharine as some of his other writing with sports themes (Bleachers, Playing For Pizza) has been.

In fact, the British publishers were so worried that they asked Grisham to write a 15pp preface introducing baseball to their audience. This was a mistake, because the deeper you get into his explanation, the more confused you will be. It would probably have been better to let the story speak for itself, which I think it can do (even though there are people, as I pointed out on Open Book last week, when I discussed baseball novels, who will always affect an inability to comprehend sports). If they were worried he could have added a brief afterword explaining the baseball issues relevant to the book. Or they could have tried a shorter explanation to the game, written by someone who understands the British perspective as well as the game (hint?).

As someone who also has worked in baseball and knows more about it than he needs to, I was impressed by the way Grisham worked his fictional characters into the real 1973 baseball season. Joe Castle's performance is probably a bit too spectacular (see George Plimpton's Sidd Finch) to convince purists, but I think he's playing the Roy Hobbs/Natural card there. Personally, I doubt you would have seen many people wearing replica jerseys to a game in 1973, certainly no adults; that is a practice which started during the baseball revival of the mid to late 1980s (and helped spark the similar soccer revival in this country a few years later). And I was very surprised by something Grisham flat-out missed. Walt Dropo, a rookie sensation for the Red Sox in the early 1950s, was indeed called Moose, not just because he was big, but more importantly because he came from Moosup, Connecticut. His nickname reflected his smalltown origins, just like Calico Joe's.

Calico Joe by John Grisham
Hodder & Stoughton, £14.99, ISBN 9781444744644

1 comment :

Espana said...

brings us novels outside of the legal system. Playing for Pizza, his semi-pro football story was fantastic. Now with Calico Joe we get a baseball story that will keep you turning the pages until the end. Unfortunately the end comes to quickly. This is more a short story than a full length novel.

Joe Castle is a rookie phenom in baseball in the early 1970's, but his career is short lived. Why? Because of the jealously and pathetic poor self-image of another player. Joe is brought up from the minors when injury sidelines the first baseman for the Chicago Cubs. Joe turns out to be a God send for the team. He sparks life back into their program. His first three at bats are homeruns, what will the fourth bring?