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Grisham, short and sweet

By Carolyn See
Friday, November 6, 2009

FORD COUNTY

By John Grisham

Doubleday. 308 pp. $24

"Ford County" is a collection of short stories by a man who has sold millions of copies of his legal thrillers in this country alone. John Grisham is still in the prime of his writing life, a devoted baseball fan, a devout Baptist who has done missionary work in Brazil, a rural Southerner who practiced law in a small Mississippi town for nearly a decade at the beginning of his literary career. He's a writer whose paperbacks can be read without embarrassment by businessmen on airplanes, because his work tends to avoid sex or violence and to concentrate on puzzles alone.

But because Grisham has always produced novels as plentifully as peanuts, because his second novel, "The Firm," sold a bazillion copies, or maybe because he's handsome, well-behaved and decorous, "real" writers (whoever they may be) have traditionally held him in low esteem, notwithstanding the fact that he has endowed numerous scholarships and been extremely active in promoting Southern regional literature. "Real" writers tend to be cranky where other people's success is concerned. It must be true, mustn't it, that Grisham can't write his way out of a paper bag. Of course, he does have that weird, mesmerizing thing that keeps the reader turning pages, but there you go: Grisham writes mere page-turners! And so the "real" writers rest their collective case.

"Ford County," his first collection of short stories, provides one more reason to ignore those naysayers. Set in a small Mississippi town not unlike the one in which Grisham started practicing law, these seven stories seem so artless that the artlessness turns into an art. They're terrifically charming, if only for this one thing: They start out at a beginning and march straight through to an end. They lack plot twists, literary surprises, authorial showing off. With one exception, they seem as real as real can be. They're written about a world that is, indeed, foreign to most of us: the fictional Southern town of Clanton, population 10,000, a place with only 51 lawyers to its name.

The little town is surrounded by rural enclaves, woods and farmland, acreage that shelters poor farmers but is also coveted by shady developers. The streets of Clanton are lined on one side with the mansions of old white landowners and on the other with the modest homes of African Americans who have lived there as long as the gouging landowners. It's a microcosm of America -- at least of those citizens who haven't run off to the anonymity of big-city life and all the daydreams of urban success.

The stories march sturdily along. I dare you to raise your head from "Blood Drive," in which a man named Bailey is injured in a construction accident. Three young guys who barely know him pile into a truck with the poorly formed idea of donating blood. After too many beer stops and the dawning realization that they don't even know what Memphis hospital he was taken to, their misfortunes pile up.

In "Fetching Raymond," two white-trash brothers who've lived "sad and chaotic lives" drive with their mother to a nearby prison where their brother is to be executed for murder. Raymond has used his time on death row to write bad novels, poems and endless letters; he's studied "meditation, kung fu, aerobics, weight lifting, fasting." He's become a legend in his own mind, but the indifferent gas chamber awaits.

And in "Fish Files," a middle-aged lawyer whose wife and children scorn him happens upon a chance to make a substantial amount of ill-gotten money. How many married men have dreamed of disappearing off the face of the Earth, wiping their pasts clean away and spending the remainder of their lives sunning themselves on the beach? "Fish Files" may serve as their personal handbook.

The remaining four stories carry their own quiet fascination. "Casino" follows the fortunes of a dull man who learns to count cards, loses, wins back his wife and makes a bundle along the way. "Funny Boy" is a sermon about being white and gay during the '80s; "Michael's Room" is a set piece about justice gone wrong; and "Quiet Haven" is a shamelessly sweet story about an ambiguously altruistic crook and a flock of forgotten senior citizens.

There's a lordly grandeur about refusing to copy-edit or revise here, which in the end turns out to be quite winning. Words are repeated carelessly all over the place; adverbs abound. My favorite sentence, attributed to the crook from "Quiet Haven" as he visits the Clanton courthouse to do some research, runs like this: "A lonely Confederate soldier in bronze stands atop a granite statue, gazing north, looking for the enemy." Did some copy editor notice this, consider pointing it out to the novelist and then reconsider? Was Grisham just amusing himself, conjuring up the Cirque de Soleil on that quiet Southern lawn? In any event, those acrobatic sculptures cast a charmingly cozy light on the sober, ultra-realistic stories, stories that -- no matter what your literary scruples -- you absolutely can't stop reading.

See regularly reviews books for The Post.

Sunday in Outlook

-- The hallowed ground of Arlington National Cemetery.

-- The continuing battle over Washington's monuments.

-- The artistry of Anne Frank's diary.

-- A natural history of unicorns.

-- And why Moses belongs on Mount Rushmore.

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