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Onyx reviews: Calico Joe by John Grisham

Calico Joe is John Grisham's second sports novel. He used football as the backdrop for Bleachers and writes about baseball in Calico Joe. Neither book is really about their respective sport, though an understanding of baseball will undoubtedly enhance one's enjoyment of Calico Joe, filled as it is with play-by-plays and statistics. Both books feature tyrants. Bleachers had a coach and Calico Joe has a father who was a professional baseball player. In both books, the main character has to come to terms with the tyrant in their final days.

Paul Tracey might have become a Major League pitcher, following in the footsteps of his father, Warren. His juvenile performance was noteworthy, and he made it to the All-Star game as a teenager. However, his father wasn't exactly an inspiration. His career was undistinguished, and the only record he held was for hitting the most batters while pitching. A cruel man who drank too much, caroused, and spent more time away from home than necessary, the elder Tracey beat his wife and terrorized his kids. His family looked forward to baseball season not because they took any pride in his accomplishments but because he would be on the road often and they could live relatively normal lives. 

Joe Castle from Calico Rock, Arkansas came out of the Minor Leagues with a bang, hitting a home run at his first at-bat and two more in his first game. He went on to set the record for hitting safely in the most consecutive games, often with a home run but sometimes using a sly bunt. On base, he took advantage of his speed to steal base after base, pushing his team to victory. Even after his streak ended, he continued to be a threat, with a battering average well over 0.500. His presence turned the flagging Chicago Cubs into contenders. Dubbed Calico Joe, the young man became an overnight celebrity. 

Paul is eleven years old the day in 1973 he watches his father, the Mets' fourth pitcher, open against the Cubs. His father has been pitching well lately, silencing some of the rumbles in the press encouraging the team to get rid of him. Paul doesn't know who to root for. He is a big fan of Calico Joe, but he feels he should be loyal to his father, too, despite their history. When Joe hits a home run, Paul knows what will happen next. Warren Tracey lives by an old baseball code about putting rookie players in their place. The next time Calico Joe goes to the plate is the last time he will ever face a pitcher.

News that Paul's father is dying re-opens the old wound. Paul has never watched another baseball game since that day. His children can't understand how their great father can have such a miserable father of his own—Warren Tracey has no use for his relatives. He left Paul's mother and remarried several times in the intervening thirty years. Paul has never met Warren's current wife and isn't even sure if she's number five or six. Paul's sister has no interest in visiting the old man in Florida, where he's about to undergo treatment for pancreatic cancer. Neither does Paul's mother.

Paul sets out on a road trip, making one stop before he gets to Florida. Though he doesn't expect anyone named Tracey will receive a warm welcome in Calico Rock, he has an idea—a mission, some might call it. The problem is: he might not be able to get either party to cooperate.

Like Bleachers, Calico Joe is a slight book, less than 200 pages. It's by no means a thriller—one might call it a fable or a morality tale, instead. It's a book about last chances and making amends and getting other people to face up to their shortcomings.  It's a story governed more by emotion than suspense. Grisham pulls out all the stops to manipulate his readers.

Paul is a sympathetic lead, though perhaps a little too good to be completely credible, whereas his father, Warren, has few redeeming qualities. Joe Castle, too, is painted in broad strokes, the eager young kid who rises to the occasion to become an overnight superstar while remaining a small-town kid at heart. Sophisticated characterization has never been Grisham's strong suit. The richest, most interesting character is the man who runs the newspaper in Calico Rock, a colorful old coot who introduces Paul to the wonders of moonshine while acting as a broker between him and the publicity-shy Castle family.

Grisham does a fine job, though, of capturing the essence of a young boy's fascination with a sport in the era before cable TV, when many games were heard only on the radio or read about in the next day's newspaper. This is a swift read, though the story proceeds at the sedate pace of the very sport at its heart.

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