Bleachers by John Grisham

This past week or so I have been fighting off a sinus infection and haven’t felt like digging into heavy reading. Given my almost constant headache, I really only wanted to read something short and entertaining; something just to take my mind off how I felt. So I picked up a couple of slim books or novellas that looked interesting. I will try to give you my take on them as I am able.

One of these novellas, was John Grisham’s Bleachers . I am not an expert on Grisham, in fact, I am not sure I have read any of his previous books (I have seen a couple of the movies). But I have loved football and sports all my life; plus Waldenbooks had it marked down 50%. Not one to pass up a bargain, I picked up the slim volume and read it one afternoon. It turned out to be an interesting story, rather forced in spots, but interesting nonetheless.

Bleachers follows Neely Crenshaw on his return to his hometown of Messina, Mississippi where he was the star quarterback in a town that worshiped their high school football. He has returned because his coach, and the town’s most famous and controversial figure, is on his deathbed. The coach, Eddie Rake, came to this sleepy little town and made it into a football factory; once winning 84 games in a row. Coach Rake’s methods were not always pretty, however, and there has always been a love hate relationship between him, his players, and even the town that seemed to worship him. Fifteen years after graduation, Crenshaw returns but not in quite the same way people might have imagined. This high school phenom – many considered him the best ever at Messina – didn’t go onto a full college career and play in the NFL. A cheap shot in college ruined his knee and his career. So Crenshaw slips back into town with a ailing real estate business and a recent divorce trying to come to grips with his past; especially his relationship with the dying Rake.

Crenshaw returns to the football field and runs into a host of other Messina players from the past. Paul Curry, his go to receiver in those glory years, now the town banker. Silo Mooney, a maniacal defensive lineman turned chop shop owner, who just barely manages to stay a step ahead of the law. Nat Sawyer, the worst punter in the history of the school, now openly gay and owner of the only bookstore in town. A steady stream of former players ends up at the football field, congregate in the bleachers and re-tell stories from the glory days. They also tell horror stories about Coach Rake and await news of his passing.

The story follows a couple of different threads. The central thread is the memories and feelings of Crenshaw and his team mates. They sit in the bleachers and relive the glory days of their time on the field. They talk about growing up in a football town, about the grueling conditioning involved in playing for Rake, and about the State Championship game their senior year; a game that involved a miraculous comeback and a secret kept for 15 years. Another thread is the conflicting and polarized emotions that surround Coach Rake. Was he a stern but lovable disciplinarian who simply wanted the best for his kids? Or was he a cruel and egotistical monster who tore people down to build himself up? The answer seems to be: “a little of both.” A final thread is Crenshaw’s attempts to come to grips with both his past and his present. He even looks up his old high school sweetheart; the one he had dumped for the hot and easy cheerleader and regretted it ever since. Crenshaw is full of regret and anger about the pressures of being a star and the crushing blow he was dealt when that linebacker’s helmet hit his knee.

I don’t think anyone will mistake this book for great literature. It isn’t even the typical Grisham thriller his fans have come to love. The story is rather over-the-top – kind of like a made for TV movie. High school town that worships football; popular but controversial football coach who runs the team and the town; high school QB breaks the best girls heart over a slutty cheerleader. You get the picture. But all that aside, the story is interesting at times. Sure there are a lot of clichés and caricatures but those ideas and symbols contain some truth or they wouldn’t be so universal. I went to high school in central Indiana. I know something of the feelings these claustrophobic towns can produce. I know people who seemed so full of promise and yet ended up in jail or in a dead end job and an ugly divorce. Most of us can look back on decisions we made that seem so foolish in the hard light of today but at the time seemed a lot less clear. Most of us have also felt the pressure of trying to live up to expectations. Maybe it didn’t involve sports and a tyrannical coach but we feel that mix of anger, regret, and nostalgia looking back. How many of us can say we are doing exactly what we always wanted to do; that our lives turned out just like we thought they would?

Grisham may not have produced great literature but at times he captures the character, emotions, and lives of small town America. He captures the tension between being part of community and living in place where there are no secrets; the comfort of knowing everyone but feeling trapped. The story also attempts to reveal the dark side of greatness and to wrestle with the tradeoffs. Rake is a polarizing character because everyone wants to be part of something larger than themselves; we all want to touch greatness. But few want to sacrifice what it takes to make it. Crenshaw has fought through all of that to achieve something; he reached the top for a short while. When it all came crashing down around him he began to wonder if it was worth it. I guess what Grisham is attempting to capture is human nature. In telling this story he seems to be saying: “this is what people are like, warts and all.” If there is anything redemptive in the story, it is that Neely Crenshaw comes to grips with that; that you must take people as you find them.

Bleachers won’t change your life or knock your socks off but it doesn’t ask much of you either; if you are a decent reader you can finish it in one sitting. If an afternoon spent reading a flawed but human story is too much to ask then you will want to pass this one by. If, on the other hand, you find the subject interesting or you are intrigued by the characters and you have some time to kill you could probably do worse.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).


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