I first met John Grisham, sports novelist, while housesitting for friends. Bedtime neared, and I realized that I had forgotten to bring a book. Near the spare bedroom were bookshelves teeming with mass-market paperbacks. Grisham's novel Playing for Pizza—it's about ex-NFL quarterback Rick Dockery's personal and professional redemption in Italy—beckoned. It was more appealing than all the books featuring handguns and night-vision-inspired targets on their covers.
I read and immediately forgot 70 pages or so before fatigue set in; all I can tell you about them is that they sufficiently softened my brain so that I could face another day of being pseudo-employed. In that respect, Playing for Pizza was an unqualified success.
A couple years later, I resumed Dockery's Italian exile for my sports book column at the now defunct BiblioBuffet. I was curious if Grisham had evolved from having attractive lawyers practice acts of heroism that might later inspire tepid blockbusters. He had not. Here's an excerpt from that 2011 review:
Playing for Pizza should be a sprightly, introspective read about the folly of prolonged youth and the different forms redemption can take. But Grisham refuses to tailor his usual kinetic approach, which employs twists and turns to haul narrative ass. Consequently, the novel reads as if gun-toting henchmen are chasing Dockery. Problems and quandaries are shot at our protagonist, who ducks and avoids them. Lessons and moral clarity are picked up covertly and with craftiness. After spending the night visiting an injured teammate at the hospital, Dockery suddenly dumps his petulant attitude and sees the benefits of teamwork. He adjusts to Italy's culture by hanging out in cafes and driving the pre-dawn-streets of Parma, which is the behavior of spies. It doesn't help that in his race to the acknowledgments section, Grisham gives Dockery zero depth, reducing him to a haircut with a golden arm. When Dockery decked a malicious sportswriter—"A disheveled sports geek who couldn't play the games and now made a living criticizing those who did," is Grisham's less-than-masterful description—I gave up encountering any character resembling a human being.
Playing for Pizza, I was surprised to learn, was the second of Grisham's three sports-related novels. He tackled small-town high school football—undiscovered literary territory, for sure—in 2007's Bleachers. Five years later came Calico Joe, the story of how one pitch in 1973 altered the lives of a young superstar, a journeyman pitcher, and that pitcher's now adult son.
Those books did not set the literary world ablaze. They did not lead to expensive movies starring today's handsomest stars cradled in soft lighting. And so America still lacks a household name when it comes to sports fiction for adults.
About five years ago, my wife and I had dinner at Arby's. Sitting to our left, alone, was a large man eating a large stack of Beef N' Cheddars. He approached the task mechanically, as if the food were paperwork keeping him from his weekend plans. When he finished, he rose and returned to the counter. I mention this because it is the best way to describe the way in which, over three days in March—including one long, desultory Saturday night—I read Bleachers and Calico Joe.
I read and read and read, hoping to find a spark that lifted the reading beyond mental mechanics. It never happened. Bleachers and Calico Joe feature damaged men in their narratives, yet you wouldn't know it from Grisham's approach. He presents the dramatic cues—a gruff but loving coach, a terrible dad and his optimistic son seeking closure through baseball—in the hope that the men reading them would dry their eyes and finish the book before their connecting flight arrives.
Emotion by association is Grisham's calling card. Friends: Calico Joe, with its Tony Conigliaro meets afterschool TV specialmeets"Cat's in the Cradle" storyline, is bad. It's also nothing compared to the lazy men-are-men stoicism of Bleachers. In Bleachers, former star quarterback Neely Crenshaw returns home years later for the funeral of beloved football coach Eddie Rake, a composite of Tom Landry, Woody Hayes, and a pair of starched Bike coaches shorts. Grisham builds the story of Rake's inescapable legend secondhand, through long and similarly somnolent swaths of dialogue. A full 22 pages are devoted to a group of men listening to, and commenting on, the radio play-by-play of a long-ago high school football game. The reader is then supposed to smile knowingly about their Pop Warner coach, or their daddy, or their wasting two hours reading emotionally stunted guy talk. The latter is best exemplified when the town sheriff recalls how Rake inspired him as he fought for his life in the Vietnam War.
"I could hear him barkin' at us at the end of practice when we were runnin' sprints. I remembered his locker-room speeches. Never quit, never quit. You win because you're tougher mentally than the other guy, and you're tougher mentally because your trainin' is superior. If you're winnin', never quit. If you're losin', never quit. If you're hurt, never quit."
Sports provide an opportunity to talk about everything else. It's why we have Wright Thompson, A Fan's Notes, and giant men crying on A Football Life. Think about the best sports fiction you've read. It probably wasn't about sports as much as it was about life. Grisham, instead, clams up, and retreats into retread macho. His male characters are as bland and indistinct as the khakis that undoubtedly hang in their closets. The female characters' roles consist of either serving cold beverages or looking good in jeans. It's real life expressed by an author who's unsure if his readers can handle a degree of truth beyond what's found inside most greeting cards. Before Rake's funeral, Grisham writes that the crowd is prepared "for some serious emotion." I'm not so sure about the author.
Millions of people read for an escape, which is what Grisham has provided for decades. Sports serve the same purpose. No two games are exactly alike, and neither are the players, whose performances depend on a variety of factors—injuries, fatigue, match-ups, travel, plus whatever is going on in their personal lives. The result is something richer and more unpredictable than any novelist—especially John Grisham, maybe, but not only him—could conceive. Sports are simultaneously a relief from and an amplification of our actual human experience. For this reason, among many others, John Grisham was probably never going to add sports novels to his list of literary conquests.
As the sports (non-fiction) author and book critic Allen Barra told me, what interests us about sports "takes place on the playing field. That satisfies the hunger." Why buy a book about an unstoppable, fashionable tennis dynamo when you can watch Serena Williams?
That hunger goes beyond the field of play. Fans who can't bear the thought of not hearing sports turn Stephen A. Smith into a beef-jerky-endorsing celebrity and Mike Francesa into a borderline deity. We know trade rumors and the draft stock of that one polarizing corner from LSU. We tend to our fantasy rosters with a tenderness generally reserved for favored relatives. Caring is not the issue. Competition is.
"If I'm talking to you, I could watch a spring training game on my phone," said writer Alex Belth, the noted sports bibliophile and editor at Esquire Classic. "What kind of room could there be for fiction in that culture?" For example, he went on, "how are you going to sell a recurring series about a basketball player when the audience is following through player feeds on Twitter? That's their narrative. How can you make fiction more appealing than reality in that way?"
Before he became known for his outstanding historical fiction, Paradise Alley author Kevin Baker wrote Sometimes You See It Coming, a 1993 baseball novel. He says that the decline of sports fiction's popularity paralleled the arrival of a certain cynicism from fans regarding the athletes they watched. Jim Bouton's 1970 bestselling baseball tell-all Ball Four played no small role in that overhaul. Baker got that book as a gift from his parents when he was 12. "That was a whole other type of education," he said.
"I don't think Americans look at sports that way anymore, which is kind of a pity; there was a lot of that still when I was growing up," said Baker, who was the student manager for the basketball, soccer, and baseball teams at Rockport (Massachusetts) High School and covered them for The Gloucester Daily Times in the 1970s. "A number of the coaches there were really trying to instill ideas of sportsmanship and hard work in their athletes. They weren't very good teams, but it was considered part of the education of playing a sport. I don't know how much that exists anymore."
This is the story Grisham would like to tell in Bleachers, but it just doesn't scan. Yes, some of that is on Grisham's stilted prose and finger-painter-grade adeptness at portraying emotions, but it's more that the simple, stolid story he tells has an inch of dust on it.
John Grisham's popularity is not something to be angry about. After all, he's gotten millions of people to read. But he's like a reliable chain restaurant. Whichever franchise you're in, the servers and the Southwestern pizza steak sandwich are blandly pleasant in the same blandly pleasant way. With Grisham, you know what you're getting every time. That is the opposite of why people love sports. Sports fiction's superstar won't arrive anytime soon for a simple reason: we don't need one. It's hard to see how we ever really will.