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Sunday, July 1, 2012

Calico Joe by John Grisham

Baseball may no longer be the undisputed national pastime, but it remains the sport most conducive to great stories and lasting literature. There’s something within the game itself, perhaps the mythic stature of its legends and its unchanging nature, that makes it nearly impossible for the pre-eminent American authors to resist addressing the game. Now, John Grisham, whose legal thrillers are automatic bestsellers at this point, has stepped up to the plate and, like the rookie phenom at the heart of this new novel, knocks one out of the park.

It’s 1973, and eleven-year-old Paul Tracey has a rocky relationship with his father, the worst and most volatile pitcher in the New York Mets starting rotation. Warren Tracey takes his frustrations away from the field and visits them on his family, fraying his storybook marriage with alcoholism and abuse.

Still, if Paul doesn’t always love his father, he has unconditional love for the game the man plays. Baseball is Paul’s life and his dream, even if his father’s emotional distance limits how much the two of them can share of the game. Paul’s love of baseball leads him to be captivated by the thrilling exploits of Calico Joe Castle, the Cubs’ new first basemen (nicknamed after the small Arkansas town that produced him), who is setting records left and right, wowing fans all over the country.

Through repeated reference to the brevity of Calico Joe’s career, the tragic end to the story becomes clear and inevitable. A fateful pitch from the hand of Paul’s father changes the lives of all three characters forever. Though the event itself is predictable, it does not in any way lessen the impact of the moment itself or of its fallout.

The novel is told from the perspective of distance, as Paul learns of his father’s terminal cancer, and despite years without contact, decides to try and get his father admit to and apologize for what he has done. Grisham does a wonderful job illuminating the complicated relationship between a grown man and the father he can neither forgive nor forget.

Like all great baseball stories, the story of Calico Joe falls just beyond the realm of possibility, or at least seems to, until one considers all the strange but true things that have happened in the long history of the game. Despite the tragic outcomes, Grisham’s writing remains playfully aware of the endless possibilities presented by a game played without a clock, day after day for half of every year, seemingly without end.

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