John Grisham is to literature what Cheerios are to a rushed breakfast, something you buy in bulk and consume without too much thought. Honestly, I’m relieved when a new Grisham book doesn’t weigh more than I do.
Yet his newest work, “Calico Joe,” is as slender as a Dodgers shortstop. Coming in at under 200 pages, it is a breezy little baseball novel that will probably appeal to many men the way Nicholas Sparks’ stories appeal to that other sex.
Strangely, considering the subject matter, it is amazingly unevocative of the game itself. Can a baseball book not leave you with the smell of mustard in your noggin’ and brick dust under your nails? This one does. Grisham would’ve done well to study a little Red Smith or Roger Kahn as a pre-writing warmup drill.
“Calico Joe” is the first-person account of a fictionalized beaning of a Chicago Cubs prodigy by the name of Joe Castle, by way of Calico Rock, Ark. After being called up suddenly by the Cubs, Castle, soon dubbed “Calico Joe,” gets off to a roaring start. After 11 games, he has 12 home runs and 14 stolen bases. He’s hitting a ridiculous .725 and leading the Cubs to first place in their division (an accomplishment almost as remarkable as a .725 average). The baseball world believes it may be witnessing the next Ty Cobb. Or perhaps his better.
His story is told by Paul Tracey, son of Warren, a head-hunting power pitcher for the New York Mets who has more losses than wins and more anger than talent. Warren Tracey would be the one to end Joe Castle’s career. While a young Paul watches in the stands, Warren aims a fastball at the head of Paul’s boyhood hero, sending him into a coma and to the brink of death. In 1973, the storied career of Joe Castle comes to a tragic close after a mere 38 games.
Warren claims the bean ball was unintentional. Paul, a longtime victim of his abusive father’s hate-filled tactics, knows better.
Jump ahead almost four decades and Joe Castle is a barely functional high school groundskeeper back in his hometown of Calico Rock; Warren Tracey is dying of cancer. Paul’s dream/goal is to see his father apologize to Castle before he dies, an idea that the gruff old former ballplayer scoffs at.
In vintage Grisham fashion — few authors can build to a crescendo the way he does — the story picks up pace. Without revealing a rather satisfying ending, he plays good notes on the power of forgiveness, for the son, the dying pitcher and Calico Joe himself.
Not that this alone makes the book worthy of your valuable time. I was looking forward to this book the way I would a Memorial Day homestand — as something soothing, as something that uses baseball as a gateway to the American mind. Imagine baseball in the hands of Grisham, an American pastime all by himself?
When it comes to reviewing books, my dirty little secret is to lift excerpts here and there, not just to offer a test drive of the book’s rhythms and sensibilities, but to capture the beauty of the words themselves. Can the author write or not? What is his or her special gift? Some authors scribble with such grace — “Angela’s Ashes” author Frank McCourt being one,F. Scott Fitzgerald another — that I no longer care what happens. Sing to me, baby. Just sing.
So it is rather telling that I did not circle one excerpt in this book — no mustardy Hi-Liter on the pages, not a single underlined phrase. Not bad, in the sense that I can donate my unblemished copy to the local library in good conscience. Bad in the sense there is no riff or passage worth noting.
I wanted more brick dust. I wanted more about what the tragedy did to Joe Castle’s family. Instead, the reader is introduced to some stereotypical Southern newspaper editor and his wife, and learns more about the Ozarks town than about its people.
Call this one a bloop single for Grisham, a slugger capable of much more. And further evidence that, as a writer, he’s probably more Minnie Miñoso than Babe Ruth.