I’m not a John Grisham fan. My taste in legal thrillers runs more towards Scott Turow. I was no more excited to pick up Ford County, Grisham’s first short story than I would be to spend time in Grisham’s Ford County, Mississippi. Grisham’s breakthrough novel, A Time to Kill, was set in Ford County, a part of Grisham’s Mississippi now home to each of the stories in the book.
I like short stories as much as the next guy (sometimes I crave them, other times I spurn them) but not being a Grisham fan I wondered how I’d get through seven of his overwrought plotlines.
But the seven stories here cover all kinds of ground, from a Southern-tinged road trip through Mississippi blues country to the sad rock-bottom of an ersatz divorce lawyer; these stories are generally dark, even brooding. And “brooding” is not a word I’d normally apply to John Grisham.
To understand my surprise at my appreciation of Grisham’s latest, you have to understand the depth of my resolve to not read any more of his books. Many a beer has been spilled out in disgust as I ranted about the inferiority of John Grisham to Scott Turow. I was, you could say, a John Grisham hater.
In one of my favorite stories from Ford County, a trio of good old Ford County country boys is on its way to Memphis for a blood drive. Their buddy has been in an accident and needs blood. What happens at the strip club they choose to visit just before they reach their destination is unforgettable and shows a side of Grisham I just didn’t know he had in him.
What struck me the most about Grisham’s new voice is its ability to create intriguing characters. At times, you’d think Grisham was writing dramatic monologues, rich language that does all the work of introducing you to the people of the book. Fans of Grisham will love the connection with Ford County, but even those who have never picked up a Grisham book before owe Ford County a chance.
The last story in Ford County, “Funny Boy,” focuses on a young man dying of AIDS. A return to Clanton, Mississippi from a life lived recklessly in San Francisco is not a task anyone would take on willingly. This story is the most human of anything Grisham has written up to this point.
Ron Powers of the New York Times calls John Grisham’s short stories a kind of one-trick literary pony. Admittedly, some sections of Ford County are slow in the vernacular of casual readers. Would Grisham have sold more copies if he’d shoved a few more car chases in? Hard to say, but those looking for the Grisham of old may find the book a slow starter. Grisham’s lazy attitude toward research is obvious, prompting Ron Powers to damn him with faint praise: Powers wonders aloud “how good [Grisham] might be if he weren’t so content to coast.”
The highlight of the book is a story called “Fetching Raymond.” Two identical brothers are heading to death row to see a third brother who’s awaiting the death penalty. They’re driving their mother there, so she can say goodbye. Raymond’s attitude toward the situation hits close to home—he cannot accept his fate.
The condemned brother’s last meal of fried catfish, hush puppies, coleslaw, a cheeseburger, and pizza (among other things) is the last straw. Grisham’s handling of a tense and awful family drama is the surprise of the month for me, putting Ford County right at the top of the list of best books I’ve read in recent months.
I know lots of readers who resist short stories. Some people feel like they never connect to the characters in the span of a few dozen or a few hundred pages. I think the larger problem is the lack of short story talent out there.
John Grisham is an entertainer and now, in my opinion, a real short story talent. If you want to check out Ford County but aren’t sure about short stories, think of it this way. You can read Ford County over the course of a week, one story a day. In fact, that’s the ideal way to enter Ford County, a single toe at a time.
The only story in the collection that really feels like old Grisham is “Michael’s Room,” essentially a legal thriller under a microscope. I would highly recommend Ford County for people already fans of Grisham but unsure about the short story form. “Michael’s Room” is the best way to get into the book if you aren’t a big reader of short stories.
Short story writing is not for everyone. John Grisham seems to have the gift for the short form. The stories resolve in a place somewhere between the neatly tied bows of John Irving’s early novels and the open-ended Postmodernism of the shorts of David Foster Wallace. That’s high praise from me, a guy who often railed against Grisham’s writing in earlier novels.
Don’t let me give you the idea that Ford County is all swamp gas and murder—there are laughs and light moments sprinkled throughout. Remember that throughout his career, John Grisham has been more of a storyteller and less of an artist, and that’s okay. It’s funny that his first truly artistic book is what convinced me to read back through his more conventional books. Ford County is a real statement by a writer who may have just hit his stride.