PLAYING FOR PIZZA
By John Grisham
Doubleday. 262 pp. $21.95
I love sports. I love fiction. But the idea of combining them makes me queasy, like inviting my basketball buddies to meet my in-laws, or drinking Bordeaux with my breakfast cereal. The outcome conceivably could be positive. But more likely not.
In my experience, sports novels nearly always fall into one of several categories, none of them promising. There's the mystery dashed off by the sportswriter, who reads a bestseller and figures, "How hard can this be?" The result of such moonlighting is often a book with a sports phrase for a title, such as "Triple Play" or "Fourth Down," that telegraphs all too accurately the lack of subtlety ahead. (Note: As far as I know, I've invented those titles. If anyone actually has written one of those books, I apologize for disparaging it without reading it. Although if the shoe fits. . . .)
Then there's the roman-¿-clef by the former player. He has funny and perhaps even insightful stories to tell about life inside the locker room but is prohibited by the omerta of professional athletics from actually telling them. Finally, there's the real writer on holiday, weary of spending months loitering at auto-parts stores researching his novel of middle-aged angst, who has come to the conclusion that he should set his next narrative in a more enjoyable context. And so we get murders at baseball stadiums and kidnapped boxers and love at the horse track as the sun rises and, very, very occasionally, a gem such as Mark Harris's Bang the Drum Slowly that would validate the entire genre if all the other attempts weren't quite so awful.
Now comes John Grisham, author of 18 previous novels, most of them about law and nearly all of them wildly successful. He explains in a note at the end of his latest, Playing for Pizza, that he stumbled upon Italian football while researching another, no doubt weightier, tome. By football, it must be noted, he doesn't mean soccer as the Italians would, but the genuine American game, complete with shoulder pads and post patterns and a few has-been expats living out the tail end of their tight-end dreams.
It's easy to see the enticement for Grisham, who has probably spent enough days in law libraries, police stations and morgues to last the rest of his life. By inventing a washed-up former NFL quarterback and limning this obscure subculture, he can dash off the story of an innocent abroad, accustomed to fame and fortune but now forced to ply his trade in virtual anonymity surrounded by oddities such as opera, small cars and teammates who smoke before games. Even better, Grisham can set it against the dolce vita of long meals, good wines, soaring cathedrals and beautiful women.
And that's exactly what Grisham has done. Unfortunately, he neglected the primary duty of the storyteller, which is to tell a story. The suspense builds as the veteran Grisham reader waits for the surprising plot turn, or the overlooked character detail on which the story will pivot, or the unveiling of a mystery begging to be solved. He waits in vain. The book rumbles straight ahead, as simple and direct and unadorned as a fullback pushing up the middle for a three-yard gain.
The most surprising thing about it, in fact, is that it's actually about football: the contrived, game-by-game (and even play-by-play) adventures of a real team in a real league that even the Italians don't care about. Its dramatic arc roughly resembles that of Coach Clair Bee's adolescent Chip Hilton stories -- the early defeat that teaches a lesson, the loss of an injured star, the coming together against adversity, the improbable upset victory -- while its lead character, Rick Dockery, is the sort of implausible American boor usually seen in dopey television commercials. That he finds true happiness after he picks up a Georgia cheerleader at a sidewalk caf¿ is only fitting, I suppose. But it doesn't exactly make for thrill-a-minute reading.
I can't help recalling The Miracle of Castel di Sangro, Joe McGinniss's chronicle of a year spent watching an Italian soccer team from a tiny town as it plays out a magical season in its league's second division, just a rung below the top. In that book, the characters are more nuanced and bizarre than this collection of cardboard cutouts Grisham has assembled. The success of McGinniss's team is far more improbable, the scandals actually scandalous and his insights about Italy and Italians genuinely thought provoking. Even better, McGinniss's story has the distinct advantage of being true, down to the thrown game at the end of the season that nets the struggling team a payout in exchange for its professionalism and pride. When it comes to sports, you can't make this stuff up. *
Bruce Schoenfeld is the author of "The Match: Althea Gibson and Angela Buxton."