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BOOK REVIEW

Grisham’s ambitions loftier than his new fictions

John Grisham has ventured into new literary territory with this story collection. John Grisham has ventured into new literary territory with this story collection. (Lynne Brubaker)
By Kevin O’Kelly
Globe Correspondent / January 5, 2010

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John Grisham’s latest book will come as a surprise to his longtime fans. “Ford County’’ is not a legal thriller or a sports novel. It’s a collection of short stories that takes us back to the setting of his first (and according to almost everyone, his best) novel, “A Time to Kill.’’ They are vignettes of small-town Mississippi life whose characters run the social gamut from criminal rednecks to middle-rung lawyers to a wealthy family’s outcast gay son.

Grisham deserves credit for trying to expand his literary range, and short stories are admirably suited to “sense of place’’ fiction. Unfortunately, even though Grisham works with fertile material and potentially compelling plots, “Ford County’’ is a failure.

The book could have benefited from substantial editing. At times Grisham’s choice of words is annoyingly ham-handed. In “Fetching Raymond,’’ the sole adjective Grisham uses to describe a particular police deputy is “obnoxious.’’ He goes on to tell us that this deputy has frequently arrested two of the story’s main characters without cause, threatened and harassed them, and subjected them to beatings while in custody. “Obnoxious’’? How about “sociopathic’’ or “obsessive and sadistic’’? “Obnoxious’’ is a sixth-grader setting off stink bombs, not a police officer routinely committing assault and civil rights violations.

In “Blood Drive,’’ one of the characters sneaks around someone’s front yard in the dead of night, trying to find the wallet he dropped there earlier in the evening. Grisham describes the scene as perfectly quiet and writes “not a creature was stirring’’ - a line that might possibly remind a reader of “The Night Before Christmas.’’ Nothing else in this passage refers to or parodies any Christmas story, so if Grisham wrote that for humorous effect it simply doesn’t work. And on its own, it’s simply trite.

Part of the pleasure of reading a work of literary fiction is a growing engagement with the characters, of seeing just enough of what they do and who they are to understand their relationships and complete their thoughts almost unconsciously.

In “Ford County,’’ Grisham never gives readers that chance. Even when he has made the emotional reality of a scene obvious he can’t resist spelling it out. Much of “Fetching Raymond’’ consists of a conversation between a mother and her sons Butch and Leon about her third son, the title character. After the mother repeats some of Raymond’s delusional statements (which she takes at face value), Grisham writes, “Butch cut his eyes at Leon, and Leon returned the glance.’’ Grisham needlessly adds, “Nothing was said because words were not necessary.’’ As if that weren’t enough, he goes on, “If she had seen the looks passed between her two oldest, she would not have been pleased.’’ By this point, any intelligent reader has figured out that Raymond is delusional or lying or both, that his brothers never believe a word he says, and that he is his mother’s darling.

Lastly, and most seriously, the stories in “Ford County’’ lack heart. I read “Fish Files,’’ about a lawyer who defrauds his clients, leaves his family, and escapes to Belize, without once feeling any indignation or suspense. “Funny Boy,’’ about a young man dying of AIDS, didn’t cause me a moment’s sadness.

I closed “Ford County’’ feeling as if I had read an assortment of first or second drafts, not a collection ready for publication.

Kevin O’Kelly reviews for the Globe and blogs at http://notesandcomments1.blogspot.com.

FORD COUNTY: Stories By John Grisham

Doubleday. 320 pp. $24.00

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