Onyx reviews: Bleachers by John Grisham
While high school football coach Eddie Rake lingers on his deathbed, hundreds
of former Messina Spartans migrate back to their hometown to pay tribute to the
man who played a crucial part in their formative years.
Coach Rake was more influential in Messina than any politician. The townspeople
catered to his whims because he brought glory to a town that had no other claim
to fame. Eventually his relentlessly brutal training resulted in a player's
death during practice. Many who had kept quiet over the years finally spoke out
and Rake's days as King of Messina ended.
The former players relive past victories and defeats in the bleachers of Rake
Stadium, a place associated with the most grueling of Rake's drills. Among those
returning for the vigil is Neely Crenshaw, perhaps the best quarterback the
Spartans ever had. Crenshaw hasn't been back in the fifteen years since his
graduation and he's not sure why he's here now.
In recent years Grisham has flexed his creative muscles with the
semi-autobiographical A Painted House and the light-hearted fable
Skipping Christmas. In Bleachers he romanticizes his favorite sport. The book's
centerpiece is a play-by-play recreation of the Spartans' infamous game, in
which they fought back from a 31-0 deficit at half time. Anyone unfamiliar with
football may be lost by the extended discussion of slots, fakes and option
plays. Like any sport, it has its own language that might as well be Greek to an
As their trip down memory lane comes to an end, so does Edward Rake's life. The
lights of Rake Stadium fade to black. But the story doesn't end here. There are
still old wounds to heal—or widen—and mysteries to be revealed.
Though he's a hero in the eyes of Messina, Crenshaw hasn't exactly led a heroic
life. He dumped his longtime girlfriend in high school for a girl of easy
virtue. He accepted under-the-table money when choosing a college and illicit
payoffs when he continued to win games. Having banked everything on an
illustrious future in football, he wandered adrift for several years after a
career-ending injury in college.
One of three Spartans asked to eulogize his old coach at a ceremony on Rake
field, Crenshaw struggles to express his ambivalence about the man. This isn't
Tuesdays With Morrie. Crenshaw wasn't inspired by a sage who meted out important
life lessons with a generous spirit and deep compassion. He was terrorized and
brutalized by a man who, on his deathbed, expressed regret that he hadn't known
how to demonstrate the love he felt for his players.
What is Grisham trying to say in Bleachers? That the lessons one learned from a
heartless tyrant suddenly become meaningful when the man attempts to
rehabilitate his image while dying? That his methods become acceptable when his
students realize that they heard the coach's voices in their head lecturing them
about every failure in their adult lives?
The story is filled with the nostalgia of high school glory, but there's no
discernable conflict beyond Crenshaw's struggle with being a past icon in
Messina who has little to show for himself in the present. It's hard to find a
commendable message when he accepts the coach's posthumous apology for scarring
two generations of impressionable teenagers.
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