After his successful foray into mainstream fiction with a coming-of-age tale, The Painted House (2001), John Grisham tries his hand at yet another subject with his winning new novel, Bleachers. Forgoing his usual focus on chills, thrills and courtroom drama, Grisham turns his writer’s eye on the world of Southern high school football and uses a small-town microcosm to tackle some big questions: Is it better to forget your past or to face life’s questionable judgments head on? Is the catharsis worth the price paid? And is it truly possible to forgive?
The setting for Bleachers is Messina, a town in an unidentified Southern state which becomes the center of the universe for high school football fans on Friday nights. It’s the home of the multi-champion Spartans and their legendary coach, Eddie Rake, who, on this weekend, lies on his deathbed. The bleachers of Rake Field are the gathering place for coach Rake’s “boys,” who sit and swap stories and beers as they wait for the passing of their beloved and hated coach. Among the returning players is former All-American Neely Crenshaw, who left Messina 15 years earlier, carrying a host of burdens with him from this field. Over the next 48 hours, he will face his demons and try to banish them.
A high school quarterback himself long before he became a world-famous writer, Grisham knows all about the athleticism, the bravado and the overflowing testosterone that come together to create a football team. Using his considerable skills as a dramatist, he slyly weaves a compelling mystery that pulls the reader into his tale just what did happen at that final game? With believable dialogue and vivid description, he takes us right into the heart of the huddle and into the hearts of his characters.
To his credit, Grisham manages to avoid the typical cliches that many writers use when dealing with the modern South. There are no barefoot hillbillies here. This is a world where high school football outdraws many colleges. It’s a world where prejudice has been dealt with, at least on the surface, and where race, class and sexual orientation mean nothing on the field, as long as you’re winning.
When the klieg lights are shut off, when the season is over for good, does the single-minded devotion to a goal really serve you in the real world? Bleachers doesn’t necessarily answer that question, but John Grisham certainly gives it the old college try.