Entertainment & the Arts: Sunday, February 04, 2001

Grisham’s strong, literary ‘House’

By Mark Lindquist
Special to The Seattle Times

You will probably not be surprised to hear that John Grisham, author of 11 best-selling legal thrillers, has written another page-turner. You may be surprised to hear that his latest novel features no lawyers, no judges, no courtrooms or conspiracies.

Grisham, in a foreword, explains that this work of fiction was inspired by family lore and his childhood in rural Arkansas and that “one or two of these events may indeed have taken place, though I’ve heard so many different versions of them that I believe none of them myself.”

High culture and pop culture have become increasingly intermingled these days. Literary writers such as John Irving and David Guterson gross millions without losing their literary cachet, while popular authors such as David Baldacci and now John Grisham stretch for literary credibility without losing their seven-figure advances. The phrase “selling out” has lost its meaning as popularity is the peak modern achievement.

And Grisham is not just popular, he is one of the most popular novelists of our time, with more than 60 million books in print. He is a craftsman and he writes good stories, engaging characters, clever plots. Additionally, he often weaves in the issues du jour: the tobacco industry, the death penalty, domestic violence, homelessness, and so on. He produces a book a year, which likely explains why his language is not as disciplined as his structure.

“A Painted House” was originally a serialization for the magazine of Southern culture, the Oxford American. Grisham may be making a bid for literary recognition, or perhaps this is just a story he had to tell, but whatever his motivation, this book works. Many early readers of Grisham, including myself, were starting to lose interest because his thrillers were becoming redundant, but this coming-of-age story returns us to the artistic promise of his first novel.

Knowing nothing of rural Arkansas in the 1950s, I cannot say for sure how authentic this book is, but it certainly feels authentic. Grisham’s simple and honest approach perfectly evokes the time, the place, and the people – every detail rings clear and true, and nothing is wasted. His spare prose matches the attitude of the rural characters he ably portrays.

“They were farmers,” Grisham writes in the first chapter, “hardworking men who embraced pessimism only when discussing the weather and the crops. There was too much sun, or too much rain, or the threat of floods in the lowlands, or the rising prices of seed and fertilizer, or the uncertainties of the market. On the most perfect of days, my mother would quietly say to me, `Don’t worry. The men will find something to worry about.’ ”

Luke, the narrator, is 7 at the time of the action, but it’s unclear from what distance he is narrating, one of the book’s few weaknesses. The plot is structured around the picking of the cotton and the variety of characters drawn to the farm for that season. In classic rite-of-passage fashion, Luke is witness to death and sex and birth.

Momentum builds in expert steps, as you would expect from Grisham, but unlike some of his most recent thrillers, he doesn’t sacrifice character in the process. He has also written some of the finest dialogue of his career.

Grisham hails from Oxford, Miss., William Faulkner’s hometown, but the clean and strong prose of this book puts Grisham more in the camp of Faulkner’s anitdote, Ernest Hemingway.

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Mark Lindquist