John Grisham has already tried his hand at legal thrillers, autobiographical Southern fiction, Christmas angst and serious nonfiction, so why not add something funny to the mix? In his latest novel, Playing for Pizza, the master of courtroom tension aims for laughs with the story of an American football player transplanted to a country where fourth down is definitely a foreign expression.
In a statement released by his publisher, Grisham says he got the idea for his new comic novel while in Bologna, Italy, doing research for a previous book, The Broker. I was pleasantly surprised to find real American football in Italy, and as I dug deeper a novel came together, Grisham says. The research was tough food, wine, opera, football, Italian culture but someone had to do it. The lead character in Playing for Pizza is Rick Dockery, a former college football star who ends up riding the bench in the NFL as the third-string quarterback for the Cleveland Browns. After a disastrous performance in an AFC championship game, Dockery is dumped by the Browns and ignored by everyone else in the NFL. Desperate to continue playing football, he turns to his agent, Artie, who lands him a job as starting quarterback with the mighty Panthers of Parma, Italy.
The Parma Panthers do indeed exist, playing in Italy’s American football league, where they’ve reached the Italian Super Bowl each of the last two years. Grisham spent time with the team this spring (the football season runs from March to July in Italy), attending a game, touring the team’s facilities, even taking the entire team out for pizza. Mike Souza, the Panther’s real-life quarterback and a transplanted American, told his hometown paper, the Monterey Herald, that the team was excited by Grisham’s visit. I think he pretty much knew what he wanted to write. He just wanted to iron out some of the details. But it does kind of parallel what I’ve been through mousing around for a while, go over to Italy, have some good experiences. I guess that goes along with being a quarterback. You get all the credit, all the blame, all the attention. Grisham’s fictional quarterback, Rick Dockery, has never been to Europe and doesn’t speak a word of Italian, so his adjustment to living, loving and playing football in Italy will be interesting, to say the least.
One of the many joys of working with John is the element of surprise, says Stephen Rubin, Doubleday president and publisher. Who would have thought that the master of the legal thriller would write a novel about cotton farming or a novel about the excesses of Christmas? Now, John pulls another rabbit out of his endless supply of hats with Playing for Pizza, a romp about a fish out of water that had me laughing out loud. Grisham’s fans appear willing to follow wherever he leads, landing each of his books on the bestseller lists in a steady stream since The Firm was published in 1991. So far, Grisham has written 18 novels, including the autobiographical book A Painted House and the holiday story Skipping Christmas. His most recent book was his first foray into nonfiction, The Innocent Man, which considered the life of a former baseball star who narrowly missed being executed for a murder case in which he was later cleared.