Grisham Gets Serious

Article excerpt

The master of the legal thriller takes a slow walk through an Arkansas childhood.

"THE HILL PEOPLE AND THE MEXICANS arrived on the same day. It was a Wednesday, early in September 1952. The Cardinals were five games behind the Dodgers with two weeks to go, and the season looked hopeless. The cotton, however, was waist high to my father, almost over my head, and he and my grandfather could be heard before supper whispering words that were seldom heard. It could be a `good crop.'"

So begins A Painted House, John Grisham's new genre-busting novel, serialized throughout the past year in The Oxford American and making its appearance this winter in book form. A radical substitute for the intricately plotted legal thrillers that have arrived like clockwork early each year since 1991, A Painted House is the unsentimental story of a single harvest season in the Arkansas Delta, as seen through the eyes of the seven-year-old son and grandson of cotton farmers. "This is a very important book to John," says Grisham's agent and former editor David Gernert, who says he wasn't surprised to see Grisham turn his attention to it. "When a story grabs John he writes it, and this was clearly the story that gripped him over the last year. Perhaps the biggest difference from his other books was in the process: Instead of writing a book in one chunk, he was writing over a long period of time, which meant that he got to take a deep breath and reread what he had written as he went along."

That excursion into the basic methodology of Creative Writing 101 may have been just what Grisham needed as he entered the second decade of an unparalleled literary career. Unlike writers who start small and build their pace, Grisham vaulted almost unimpeded onto the bestseller list with his second novel (his first, A Time to Kill, later became a bestseller as well) and has broken records with every book since. Although an undisputed master of plotting, Grisham has fielded criticism over the years that his characters are two-dimensional and sometimes unlikable. The pressure to redline his literary motor year after year has hardly given him time to explore the more leisurely avenues of writing; A Painted House is Grisham's effort to get off the highway and spend a little time doing some writerly shunpiking.

A celebrity who keeps determinedly away from the spotlight--he speaks more often to small town newspapers than to national networks and news organizations--Grisham has done little advance publicity for the book. Doubleday didn't make up its mind definitely to publish A Painted House in February--in the slot that has seen a Grisham thriller published every year for nine years--until last fall. As a result, the book didn't make it into Doubleday's catalog of winter publications, which booksellers use to plan advance orders.

The departure from his usual subject matter may represent a financial gamble for Grisham and his publisher--although his name on the cover is an almost-sure guarantee of healthy sales--but the gutsier gamble may be with his pride. Not only has forty-five-year-old Grisham taken a sabbatical from his tried-and-true formula, he has also entered the crowded field of growing-up-in-the-rural-South fiction, already well plowed by everyone from Harper Lee to, most recently, Tony Earley (Jim the Boy). Critics kept a respectful distance while the book was being serialized--and Oxford American readers voted with their pocketbooks, substantially pumping tip the magazine's sales.

Swerving from passages of great eloquence and tenderness to paragraphs of flat-footed prose, A Painted House reads like the first novel that in some ways it is. Surprisingly loosely plotted, it may disappoint readers who are looking for Grisham's usual Swiss-watch precision in storytelling; it works better as a series of vignettes and character sketches than as a linear story. Despite its flaws, however, the combination of an appealing story and the momentum of the Grisham name are expected to propel the book into a familiar spot--the bestseller lists that have been the comfortable home for all of Grisham's previous efforts. …