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.
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
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 He turned another, unpublished short story into the screenplay for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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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