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Onyx reviews: Playing for Pizza by John Grisham

There is a judge in Playing for Pizza, but in general there is a decided lack of anything to do with the legal trade in John Grisham's latest novel. Every now and then the author—best known for thrillers like The Firm and The Runaway Jury—tries his hand at something new. Playing for Pizza focuses on a couple of topics that seem near and dear to his heart: football and Italy. Football was at the heart of Bleachers, and most of The Broker took place in Italy.

Rick Dockery is a third string quarterback for the Cleveland Browns. Most of the time he warms the bench, but he's put in during the fourth quarter of a crucial game after the other quarterbacks are injured. In the next eleven minutes, he throws three interceptions, blows the Browns' comfortable lead and crushes their hopes of making it to the Super Bowl. The only thing that saves him from being lynched on the field is the crushing tackle that gives him a concussion and puts him in the hospital.

Rick has done the rounds; he rarely spends more than a year playing for any one team. He's even done a stint in the Canadian Football League. The only place where people don't hate him now is Denver, the Browns' opponents during the fateful game. At the age of twenty-eight, his career in the NFL is pretty much over, according to Arnie, his agent. Time to try his hand at coaching or, perhaps, real estate.

Rick knows that his skills will never get him into the Hall of Fame, but he's not ready to give up on the sport yet. When Arnie comes up with the far-fetched idea of spending a season playing for the Parma Panthers of the Italian Football League, Rick clutches to anything that will keep him on the field. 

The league has a cap of three Americans per team. The Italian players draw no pay. Most are enthusiastic amateurs who would be cut from most high school rosters. Rick isn't going to get rich, but at least he'll be playing.  He'll even be the starter, fielding his team in front of a crowd of about a thousand fans.

Playing for Pizza is a fish-out-of-water story of the gentlest type. Rick speaks no Italian (someone translates his plays when he calls them on the field) and has little interest in European history or culture. He does grow fond of the cuisine, though, and Italian women, especially an opera singer whose talents on the stage are rewarded as in much the same way as his football skills were in the U.S.—with boos.

The brief novel is almost completely lacking in dramatic tension. The big question is whether Rick can lead the Panthers to their first Super Bowl. He's dogged by a mean-spirited journalist from Cleveland, a man who not only branded him as the worst goat in sports ever, but followed him to Italy to report on how far he has fallen. "[The Panthers] allow riffraff like Rick Dockery to play the game far away from where it matters," he writes.

There are the expected crises—attractive deals from abroad that threaten to lure Dockery away from his team, overconfidence after a couple of wins, injuries, the threat of a paternity suit back home, players quitting, and troubles with the women in his life. Rick also has to learn how to drive a stick shift around the crowded streets of Parma, and adapt to the foreign culture, but it's all very mild stuff. As with The Broker, there are prolonged descriptions of multicourse meals (described elsewhere as "food porn") and detailed travelogues.

The book works because Rick is a delightful rogue. He's self-absorbed, and he doesn't care if the women he beds are married or not, but he's true to his team and to his sport. The outcome is all but preordained from the beginning, but it's a pleasant enough ride, if a little high in caloric content.

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