Until last week, I was a Grisham virgin. Life was bike rides and kittens and Christmas carols. Life was simple. I worshiped at the altar of Great Literature. And I was not in the least bit curious to see what an author like Grisham had to offer the likes of me. I was innocent.
Then, on Sunday night, I found myself driving to the bookstore. I had made my decision. I was going to buy Grisham's newest book. I was nervous and I was scared. I tried to act casual as I walked through the door and into the overly lit entrance of the store, but I could tell that I'd been noticed. I walked directly to the shelf lined with copies of "The Confession," and plucked a copy as quickly as I could, but I was sure it was too late. I'd been seen picking up a Grisham novel, with the intention to buy. It was thirty percent off. "Not even a common whore gives discounts," I muttered under my breath, fumes of bourbon on my breath almost knocking me unconscious. And yet I wouldn't let go. I clutched the book to my chest, hiding the already all too familiar cover from prying stares. My heart was pounding as I stumbled over to the girl at the register. She flashed me a pretty smile, her eyes warm and open. Then she glanced at my purchase. The light went out, her eyes were dead. She flatly told me what I owed. I paid.
My face burned with shame as I ran out into the parking lot. I turned around one last time. The girl at the register was pretending to stick her finger down her throat, and then pretend vomiting into the money drawer. Life as I knew it was over. I drove home at a reckless speed, running red lights, leaving a path of destruction behind. When I finally made it to the sanctity of my home, I threw myself onto the bed and wept. Then I started reading. It was... meh.
I don't know much about John Grisham and what I do know I gathered from reading his bio on the dust jacket of his newest book. Apart from writing best-sellers, he's also on the Board of Directors of the Innocence Project in New York and in Mississippi. Maybe not surprisingly, his newest work is a piece of thinly veiled anti-death penalty propaganda. I don't necessarily feel comfortable calling it "propaganda," since I am myself not in favor of the practice of execution, but the piece is so carefully constructed to fulfill Grisham's agenda, I don't know what else to call it. The novel is obviously meant to entertain as well as instruct, but in terms of driving home a point, it ultimately fails. The whole story the author tells is a fiction, carefully constructed to build up the reader's ire, but one would be better off reading something like David R. Dow's "The Autobiography of an Execution," which was also recently published (Dow is thanked in Grisham's acknowledgments, by the way). I've only had time to read about "Autobiography", but I recognized several cases mentioned in regards to Dow's work that have been woven into Grisham's plot. Naturally, reading about the real execution of an innocent man is more distressing than reading a novel about one.
Apart from all this, I had some other issues with Grisham's book. In many ways the subject-matter is terribly one-sided. The author obviously feels no friendliness towards Texas and its right-wing government. Nevertheless, the writing is almost confusingly conservative. With the exception of the use of the internet and cell phones, this book could have been written thirty or fifty years ago. The men are White Men: governors, lawyers, cops. They drink bourbon, play tennis, and bark out orders. The women are wives, mothers, and daughters. They cook, answer the phones, and cheer lead. And then there are the black people. They listen to rap and play football. Somehow the only black voices in a book about a black population are that of Donté Drumm, an innocent man condemned to death, and his mother's. Grisham may write for the black population. He just can't seem to write the black population.
I guess the real hero of the story is a Lutheran pastor from Kansas named Keith Schroeder who has to drive Travis Boyette, a serial rapist and the killer of Nicole Yarber, to Texas where they will try to exonerate Donté Drumm, who has twenty-four hours until he is to be executed for Yarber's murder. Schroeder is supposed to be a likable person precisely because he is a man of God, but he falls in line with the Reverend Lovejoys of the world : willing to fulfill his duties to a certain extent, and then retreat. Much of the book is him feeling reluctant about helping out, but helping out anyway. Upon first meeting Boyette in his office, Schroeder quickly "tire[s] of the meeting. Boyette showed no interest in God, and since God was Keith's area of expertise, there seemed little for him to do". There seems to be something innately wrong when an interest in God is the only ticket to a pastor's empathy. Anyway, that's Keith for ya. And he's the book's hero.
Still, there are some scenes that Grisham delivers poignantly. The hour leading up to the execution and the scenes involving Drumm's mother and her grief are genuinely moving.
I should reiterate that this is Grisham's twenty-something book and the only one I've read. It's hard to come to a quick conclusion about a writer's oeuvre when I've only read such a small sliver of it. Let's just hope there are better works out there and maybe better ones to come.