Sunday, May 27, 2012

Calico Joe by John Grisham

It's obvious that John Grisham loves baseball. His knowledge and love of the game comes through in every chapter of Calico Joe. It's meant to be a story of a destructive father and a son who yearned to make his father a better man. But, if you don't like baseball, you won't get to the heart of this story.

Paul Tracey was in his forties when he received the phone call that his father, Warren, was dying. Paul's mother and sister didn't care. But, Paul had emotional scars, and, at one time, he bore the physical signs of his father's abuse. Now, he had only one thing in mind. Make his father pay for the most destructive act of his life, purposefully throwing the pitch that destroyed a young player's career.

Warren Tracey was the fourth starting pitcher for the Mets in 1973, but he wouldn't have been in the lineup if they had someone else. He was a "self-absorbed, brooding man," one who never lived up to his potential and blamed everyone else for his failures. He was a womanizer who drank, and hit his wife. And, the one day he hit his eleven-year-old son, Paul, prepared Paul for the day he would throw at Joe Castle, the most promising rookie major league baseball had ever seen.

Joe Castle was called up in July 1973 to play first base for the Chicago Cubs. The kid from Calico Rock, Arkansas was famous after his first game when he homered in his first three at bats. Rookie records fell as he hit in game after game, and eleven-year-old Paul was just waiting for him to play at Shea Stadium. He was as excited about seeing "Joe Calico" play as everyone else was. But, he also dreaded the confrontation between his father, who would pitch at Shea, and Paul's new idol. The media called it, "A contrast between youth and age. Warren Tracey, age thirty-four and over the hill, versus Joe Castle, the brightest young star baseball has seen since the arrival of Mickey Mantle in 1951." That game was a life-changer, for Joe, for Warren, and for Paul, who lived with the knowledge that his father purposefully threw at Joe Castle.

I love baseball, and I enjoyed all the baseball scenes in Calico Joe. Grisham skillfully mixes actual players and announcers with fictional characters. The baseball scenes came to life. It was the non-baseball scenes that seemed cold and emotionless. Paul Tracey came to life as an eleven-year-old, but none of the adult characters were full-bodied. And, the scenes between Paul and his father were cold, as they should have been. But, there just didn't seem to be any passion there, even hatred. And, I wasn't satisfied with the conclusion to Joe's personal story. It just never came to life.

Years ago, I read John Grisham's Bleachers. Great football scenes, but the people somehow fell flat. I have the same reaction to Calico Joe. I loved the baseball, but the characters didn't ring true. Who am I to say, though, that a bestselling author doesn't bring his characters to life? In my opinion, though, Calico Joe was a three-hour read that I won't remember in a couple days.

John Grisham's website is

Calico Joe by John Grisham. Doubleday. 2012. ISBN 9780385536073 (hardcover), 194p.

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