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Bleachers Paperback – May 29, 2007
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“As taut and twisting as a well-thrown spiral.”—People
“A sure-footed storyteller with an undeniable mastery of plotting, pacing, and tone.”—The New York Times Book Review
“[Grisham] makes this football game so real that the reader can almost see and hear it.”—The New York Times
“Some of the best writing from Grisham . . . [He] makes Bleachers sing.”—Los Angeles Times
About the Author
Since first publishing A Time to Kill in 1988, Grisham has written one novel a year (his other books are The Firm, The Pelican Brief, The Client, The Chamber, The Rainmaker, The Runaway Jury, The Partner, The Street Lawyer, The Testament, The Brethren, A Painted House, Skipping Christmas, The Summons, The King of Torts, Bleachers, The Last Juror, and The Broker) and all of them have become international bestsellers. The Innocent Man (October 2006) marks his first foray into non-fiction.
Grisham lives with his wife Renee and their two children Ty and Shea. The family splits their time between their Victorian home on a farm in Mississippi and a plantation near Charlottesville, VA.
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Before there was Neely Crenshaw, there was Chip Hilton, whose wholesome exploits on the athletic field made him an icon for the Baby Boomer generation. Hilton's coach was a genuine role model, never compromising his athletes' need for authentic validation to the altar of victory. In turn, Hilton's inevitable victories comforted readers who needed assurance that right prevails, honor is worth the effort and adult role models exist in America's high schools.
Crenshaw's Coach Rake is a complicated but flawed man, driven to win, devoted to excellence, and inflexible in his insistence on practice, execution and fearless performance. His former players never seem to grow up, suspended in memory, frozen on the picture-perfect gridiron of Messina High School. As stereotyped as Chip Hilton was in the 1960s, Neely Crenshaw is even less complicated. His angst is tiresome, his hidden secrets obvious. Even before Coach Rake dies, we know his players will revisit the past, confront their ghosts and come out of the valley of death ennobled.
What makes this pat formula work is Grisham's gift with dialogue. Neely confronts teammates (one a model of middle-class stability, one an inmate, one gay) as well as his spurned former girl-friend with a combination of stoic pain and courageous determination. Through this gentle odyssey, we watch a grown man truly become a functional adult. But the observations require us to wade through saccharine vignettes, absolutely contrived conversations and stereotyped characters.
In the most painful sense, Grisham is preaching to the choir. Those who are less than enthralled with football or who are aware of its limits will find "Bleachers" effective propaganda but inadequate literature. Those who have played the game, who constantly relive their pasts and faithfully advocate the sport as the salvation of our society will sleep with the novel under their pillows.
Supporting Neely is a good array of colorful characters, high school jock stereotypes - the gangly, misfooted punter who later comes out of the closet and now owns a book store, the star receiver now managing the local bank, the convict, the ex-convict, and the current sheriff, the scrawny back who suffers a terrible fate, and more. And there is the memory of the perfect, dumb, devilish, blonde cheerleader, who is out of town but on the mind of more players than just Neely. She took Neely away from another stereotype: the cute girl who grows up to be perfect. Neely can't forget her and she can't forgive him for leaving her for the legs and lungs of the vixen.
There is not much time to develop the characters, not in these few pages. Two threads run through the book: the death that led to the coach's firing and the mystery behind that 1987 state championship when, trailing 31-0 at the half, Neely and Silo (Yes, he's built like a silo; there's also one athlete named Hindu.) lead the team back for a miraculous win. Best of all, one alum drags out a tape of the second half, allowing a radio broadcast to magnify the mystery: Why did the coaches not return to the field for the second half.
The funeral and the final showdown with the jilted first love provide answers. While no great novel, and no great work of art, "Bleachers" offers a sweet trip down memory lane for any boy who ever fastened a leather chin strap on an old high school helmet, and who never got the girl, the championship, or the short-lived, bittersweet glory. And you can read it in ninety minutes. Or rent "Everybody's All-American" to watch Dennis Quaid play someone quite like Neely.