Sunday April 15,2012 -
By Jeffery Taylor
I CANNOT help smiling when I start a new John Grisham.
The author of The Firm has sold almost 300 million legal thrillers and they often open with convincing counterarguments to the main thrust of the plot. The same principle applies to Calico Joe, which takes for its theme Grisham’s second passion, baseball.
As this is Grisham, you hope that, after the early deluge of baseball lore, the closing pages will reveal a pristine, recognisable and deeply moving human truth. You will not be disappointed.
Writer Paul Tracey hates his father Warren, a retired professional pitcher and an ugly character who repeatedly smacked his wife and the young Paul about.
Paul takes us back to the summer of 1973 when he was 11. Joe Castle, 21, from Calico Rock, Arkansas, is the most spectacular prodigy in baseball history.
He is also a really nice guy and, when the crowd goes mad with jubilation as he breaks every record, Joe is as thrilled as everyone else. The crowds take Calico Joe to their hearts, a bright star hurtling into orbit.
However, Warren is a bitter man, a delusional misfit who believes the world owes him a living. He feels undervalued by his fellow professionals, let down by his wife and children and grossly misunderstood by the public.
Warren faces the end of his playing career with a list of grievances burned into his heart and soul by self pity, that most corrosive acid of all.
So when their teams meet, there, facing Warren aged 34 and over the hill, is Calico Joe, the young golden boy of baseball, the focus of all the ageing athlete’s accumulated envy.
The encounter spells the end of the young star’s career and results in Warren walking out on his wife and 11-year-old son and the family rarely speak his name again. Three decades later, Paul decides to resolve a conflict of profound emotions, both public and private, by bringing Warren and Calico Joe together in old age.
Calico Joe is surrounded by a protective shield of brothers, other relatives and a nation’s affection and Paul finds severe resistance as he broaches the idea to the injured man’s camp. To his surprise, Joe himself agrees.
Calico Joe is a typical virtuoso display of Grisham’s natural story-telling skills. Slowly emerging through flashbacks within flashbacks and fragmented conversations is the history of Paul’s unhappy childhood at his father’s hands.
Warren’s treatment of his family goes deep and Paul’s pain will not ease but barriers are broken down.
The result is a superbly written book which, though fewer than 200 pages long, deserves a place on any family bookshelf.