Sunday, August 12, 2012

Calico Joe by John Grisham: A review


This short novel is a model of storytelling by a very accomplished writer. John Grisham is, of course, best known for his lawyer-mysteries/thrillers, but I've actually never read any of them. I have read The Painted House which I thought was wonderful and now I can add Calico Joe to my Grisham list. It's a fine story.

The action of Calico Joe switches back and forth between the summer of 1973 and the close-to-present-day. The big story of the summer of 1973 was a baseball phenom for the hapless Chicago Cubs named Joe Castle. He was the most amazing rookie anyone had ever seen, in a sport that is known for some amazing rookies, most of whom quickly flame out. But Joe Castle was the real deal. In his first at bat in Philadelphia, he hit a home run. And he kept hitting them. He hit home run after home run, but even when he didn't hit home runs, he got hits. Baseball fans, especially young boys, all over the country idolized him, and Cubs fans were ecstatic that they could finally see an end to their years of torment.

At the other end of the baseball spectrum was a hard-partying, hard-throwing Mets pitcher named Warren Tracey. Not to put too fine a point on it, he was not a nice man. He treated his family badly, hitting his wife and kids when he was present, but mostly he was absent from their lives. He was a womanizer and a drunk and a bad teammate. He was mostly disliked by his fellow Mets. He also had a reputation as a headhunter, a pitcher who deliberately hits batters.

Tracey's son, Paul, was eleven years old in 1973 and he lived and breathed baseball. He was a pitcher on his Little League team and he collected baseball cards and kept scrapbooks on the players that he idolized. One of those players was Joe Castle, or Calico Joe as he had come to be known for his home town of Calico Rock, Arkansas.

In August of 1973, just a few weeks after Calico Joe had been called up from the minors and made his big splash, the Cubs went to New York to play the Mets. As fate would have it, Warren Tracey was pitching the first game and, in his first at bat, Calico Joe hit a home run off him. 

His second at bat was the event that shook the baseball world and changed the lives of Joe and Warren, as well as many others, forever. Thirty years later, as Warren is dying of pancreatic cancer, his son Paul seeks closure for that event and that quest is the meat of the story of Calico Joe.

I found it interesting that Grisham used real baseball players of the '70s era as characters in his tale. That's always risky for a fiction writer, I think, but I remember those players very well for they were the baseball icons of my youth, too, and I think he portrayed them very well, very honestly, at least in keeping with their public images. It certainly lent an air of verisimilitude to the story. And, of course, it also gave him a chance to use one of my favorite (maybe apocryphal) Yogi Berra quotes: "Always go to other people's funerals, otherwise they won't go to yours."

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