Always trying to expand my reading horizons (why must we only have one life to read?), I have just finished my first John Grisham novel, Calico Joe. I picked it because, out of all the sports that are available for our viewing pleasure, I call myself a baseball fan. A Red Sox fan, to be exact. (Cue the booing and the condolences in the comments below.) A book about baseball must, by default, hold some interest for me. I figured it was a safe bet for my Grisham initiation.
The story starts off promising: a first-person narrator in his 40s, telling a tale of his eleven-year-old self; a phenomenal rookie player who was idolized by eleven-year-old boys everywhere; and a mediocre MLB pitcher with a chip on his shoulder who happens to be the narrator’s father. Again, I love baseball. I’m a lazy fan, though. Don’t ask me about stats or detailed history. I’m doing well if I know the current AL East standings. (And when your team is playing as horrifically as mine is this year, even that is too depressing to pay attention to.) There’s nothing better than spending an afternoon in a beautiful ballpark with the obligatory ballpark frank in hand. I love that there is no time clock in baseball. I’ve often joked that, as slow-paced as the game is, there’s time to watch it twice, due to the replay of almost Every. Single. Play. It’s a relaxed game, perfect for the lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer.
It gets more interesting in our house. I call myself lucky that my husband I share a love of the same sport. Kudos to all of you football wives– you are Saints! One problem, though– he’s a Yankees fan. Interracial marriages ain’t got nuthin’ on blurring the lines between Boston and NY baseball. How we even managed to set that animosity aside for the wedding day is a freak of nature. It all works out, though, mainly because my husband enjoys banter and trash talk as a sport in itself. I don’t… but I’ll go along with it when it comes to our baseball rivalry. We’ve even worked out kind of a deal: we’ll alternate each summer seeing our teams in person. Living in Texas, our options are either Dallas or Houston; although two years ago, I saw my first game at Fenway Park. I have yet to see Red Sox vs. Yankees in person. Bucket list. Another reason that it works is that (I’m so ruining my street cred here!) I have a soft spot in my heart for the Yankees. My first MLB game ever was at the old Yankee Stadium with my aunt and uncle who lived in the city. I also had great respect for some of their core players during my viewing years: Jeter, Posada, Rivera… But no more. With the retirement of Jeter last year, that nostalgic Yankees roster is gone for good. Let the trash talk commence!
This week is the perfect time for a baseball book and menu because there is a three-game series at Yankee Stadium vs. the Red Sox! A bonus of being fans of high-profile teams is that we get to see most of their match-ups televised, even though we live half a country away. It’s a celebration at our house, and we like the food to match. Surely we can dig up an appropriate meal out of the pages of this book, right? Bingo! The second reference to any food item in the book is a meal at a “barbecue shack,” where the narrator eats “a pulled pork sandwich and a root beer” (35). That’ll do it. Now, had I never left New England, I may not have had a frame of reference for this meal. Barbecue in the northeast mainly consists of chicken and hotdogs on the grill, lathered in barbecue sauce. True story. I was never a fan of these “cookouts.” Little as I like Texas, it has done one beautiful thing– it has introduced me to authentic barbecue. It’s still not something I would eat every day, and I’ve never actually tried making it myself. I leave that to the places who have invested in the huge smoking pits.
Besides some generic references to sandwiches and breakfasts, there aren’t many particular references to food in Calico Joe. I’ve noticed, now that I’m paying attention to food references in books, that breakfast seems to be the meal most commented on. Not to point it out– just to add some description to the scene. I’m supposing that it is a safe bet. Not many people don’t like breakfast. It adds color and filler without standing out too much and taking away from the surrounding plot. Grisham does take some paragraph real estate in the description of one particular vegetarian meal that Paul, the narrator, shares with a small-town reporter and his wife. I found this oddly distracting, because the wife is about the most minor character in the book, and I wasn’t sure why he used so much time describing her vegetable garden.
That many veggies would be distracting during a baseball game, too. I’m still going with the pulled pork sandwiches. I found a yummy-sounding recipe on Pinterest that was a snap to prep and filled my house with mouth-watering aromas for 8 hours in the crockpot. Oh! I almost forgot to tell you where we got the pork. For a little family outing on Saturday, we visited Cross Plants and Produce for the first time. What fun! They have a miniature horse and donkey to watch and pet (Chompers was a fan), some outside entertainment in the form of beanbag toss, a swing, and rocking chairs, and a marvelous selection of local foods– no pesticides, antibiotics, or hormones allowed! I don’t know why it took us so long to go there, but it’s going to become part of our weekly shopping habits from now on.
Being in Texas and all, we dressed these sandwiches Tex-Mex style, with green chile hot sauce, cotija cheese, limes, and avocado, with a side of pickled okra. Oh, he said he had a root beer with it, right? Well, he was on a road trip. We are not. I don’t like root beer, so we’ll pair it with a couple of Shiner Blacks. Doesn’t it look yummy? (Sort of looks like we’re playing a baseball video game. Hey– it’s hard to photograph a TV. “E” for effort?) This is the second game of the Sox/Yankees series. I’m glad I didn’t cook it for the first game, because the score would have left a bitter aftertaste in my mouth. I headed to bed just as the announcer was saying, “For it to be a true rivalry, both teams have to be good.” Damn Yankees fan. Tonight’s game, in contrast, was so great! Pitchers’ duel: rookie pitcher vs. knuckleball pitcher. Nail-biting 9th inning, Red Sox win 2-1, yay! And the sandwiches? I’ll quote my husband: “Best pork ever. EVER.” It’s going on the Pinterest Food Favs board for sure. Too busy trying to get a photo, dig into the yumminess, and watch the game, I didn’t get a Toddler Cam clip this time. Let’s just say he played with it for about 20 minutes until we shoved a piece in his mouth and he realized, “This is kind of edible!”
After a relaxing evening of baseball, I can think about the book more. The pace of Calico Joe is fittingly (albeit frustratingly) as slow as a baseball game. Grisham’s writing is solid enough, but the story lacks spark, in my opinion. There is some tension, to be sure. I guessed the crux of the narrative very early on in the book. That disappointed me, as I’m the type of reader who likes to be surprised as I go along. However, when it came time to read the details of that pivotal event, I was riveted. But I wanted more tension. In fact, (permit me to talk about race for a bit?), I had been picturing Calico Joe in my head as a black player. It just made sense. The color line had been breached in the MLB many years before, of course, but old rifts run deep. In the early 70s, it is not a stretch to imagine a pitcher with the character of Warren Tracey to be greatly offended by a young upstart African-American who can hit any ball thrown at him. When I realized that Calico Joe is blond haired, blue-eyed, it just didn’t jive. If I were Grisham’s editor, I would tell him that he’s missing out on a huge plot angle by making Joe white. Oh, well– maybe he’ll consult me next time. 🙂 The resolution of the story left me skeptical and unmoved. I was glad that there was not full redemption of the years of hurt; but, still, too much of a neat bow for me. Overall, it was a sad book. Sad for baseball, and sad for the reminder of families beset by abuse and neglect. The internal tension of the narrator– vacillating between wanting to adore his father, but ultimately hating him– powerful, yes; but oh, so depressing.
I’m torn about whether I’ll let John Grisham pitch another inning. What do you think? Was this just a poor example of his literary work as a whole? Almost glad I didn’t rave over it, because I would have been tempted to make you groan with another baseball cliché like “he knocked this out of the park!” I’d love to hear your thoughts on both this book and recommendations for other Grisham novels I should try. Unless they’re all depressing. I get enough of that from my team.