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Onyx reviews: Ford County by John Grisham

John Grisham didn't apprentice in short stories before launching into writing novels. Over the course of his career, he hasn't published any short fiction, not even in the literary magazine he financed in the 1990s, Oxford American. Until now, that is.

By Grisham's own admission, the stories in Ford County are based on ideas without enough substance to support a novel. "The great thing about a short story—you can work on it, put it away and forget about it for a year, and go back to it with a different perspective, or different idea. So I've done that for many years with these stories," he told an interviewer

A short story collection seems like a stretch for an author best known for churning out a new legal thriller each February. Ford County isn't his first break from tradition, though. Grisham has written non-fiction (An Innocent Man) and short novels about baseball and Christmas. He turned another, unpublished short story into the screenplay for the movie The Gingerbread Man.

He stays away from the courtroom in this collection, but that doesn't mean he abandons the law altogether. A few of the stories feature lawyers as protagonists, and elements of the law permeate many of the tales. However, for the most part, they lack one of the basic requisites of suspense or dramatic tension: conflict.

The stories are all set in and around Clanton, the fictional town in Ford County, Mississippi from Grisham's debut novel, A Time to Kill, a place he occasionally returned to in subsequent novels. Clanton is steeped in the traditional Old South. The black and white communities are separated by the train tracks. Gossip brews in barber shops and on verandas, and spreads like wildfires.

The stories are linear, without subplots or flashbacks. There are no gimmicky twists at the end. They are propelled by the colorful and diverse characters that populate them, characters with more depth and substance than the ones typically found in his novels. Grisham knows and understands the residents of small Southern towns.

The opener, "Blood Drive," is a humorous misadventure. After Bailey, a former resident of Clanton, is injured in a construction accident in distant Memphis, the locals decide that someone should travel to Tennessee to donate blood. The ragtag trio of men representing the town are soon distracted from their mission by alcohol, a run-in with a diligent police officer, an ill-advised trip to a strip club and a disastrous encounter with a drug dealer. They arrive in Memphis so ill prepared for their mission that they don't even know the name of the hospital where Bailey is a patient, or if Bailey is his first name or last. Bailey's workplace accident leaves him in better shape by story's end than his three would-be saviors.

In "Fetching Raymond," Inez Graney and two of her sons borrow a van to attend the execution of the third Graney son, who was found guilty of murdering a police officer. Raymond has been spinning a web of lies during the span of his incarceration, conning his brothers into sending him money they can ill afford to pay for non-existent lawyers and futile appeals. The van is needed to accommodate Inez's wheelchair, but it serves another purpose on the return journey. Though Grisham has written at length about the death penalty, this story doesn't moralize beyond a passing comment by the owner of the van, who mumbles that there are some in town who "don't like" the fact that Raymond is to be executed.

"Fish Files" is about a man provided with the opportunity to escape from a dead-end job as an attorney where his practice has devolved into bankruptcy and divorce cases, and from a loveless marriage. One of his "fish files"—his expression for cases so old they're starting to smell—unexpectedly yields the promise of a quick settlement and an early retirement, and Mack Stafford seizes the day. Once he starts putting his plan into effect, everything tumbles into place without anything jeopardizing his success.

"Casino" is a caper about a crook who turns a plot of land he owns into an Indian reservation so he can start a lucrative casino, and the man who figures out how to use the casino to exact revenge on his ex-wife. It takes a while for Grisham to get around to the point of the story, and much of it is taken up recounting Bobby Carl Leach's machinations in getting himself declared a member of the Yazoo tribe when the story is really about Sidney's marital problems and his solution to them. Again, once Sidney puts his plan in motion, there's never any doubt that he will succeed.

"Quiet Haven" is another conflict-free caper. Gilbert has made a career out of moving around the state from one nursing home to another, convincing residents to will their money to him and providing evidence to insurance companies when cases of neglect are brought against his employers. The story is charming enough, but would have been better served by some risk that the protagonist would get caught or his nefarious plan foiled. Alternately, the story could have been used to explore the sordid conditions in nursing homes but Grisham makes only a passing comment about the euphemistic names used by people to placate their consciences after depositing loved ones into the care of strangers.

The story with the highest degree of conflict is "Michael's Room." Lawyer Stanley Wade is taken hostage after work by a family who was on the losing side of a civil case he defended several years earlier. Stanley successfully argued that there had been no negligence on the part of his OBGYN client, and that the family would not suffer significant financial hardship after their son was born brain damaged. The family retries the case in front of Stanley, making him bear witness to the lies and distortions he used to win the case.

The closing story, "Funny Boy," is set in 1989 and features a young man from a once wealthy family returning to Clanton to die. Adrian Keane has AIDS, which gives Grisham an excuse to explore small town prejudices of the era. Adrian's family won't have anything to do with him, instead hiring Emporia, an elderly black spinster, to take him into the house she rents from the Keane family. In return for tending to Adrian, she will be granted full title to the property after he dies. The people of Clanton are afraid of Adrian's disease, and Emporia is shunned by her neighbors and even by her pastor

Adrian has decided to read the works of Faulkner as he lays dying in Lowtown, and confesses that, for the most part, he doesn't understand the man's works. Is this Grisham's own admission? By invoking Faulkner's name, Grisham risks drawing unfavorable comparisons to the South's patron saint of literary fiction.

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