Grisham's 'Bleachers' captures frenzy of small-town life

By Don O'Briant

Cox News Service

ATLANTA-- The second John Grisham novel of the year hits stores today, but don't expect to stay up until the wee hours reading another page-turning story about lawyers.

Once again, as he did in "A Painted House" and "Skipping Christmas," Grisham has departed from his legal thriller formula for a more mainstream novel. That hasn't seemed to matter in the past because both of those books were best sellers. And, with a first printing of 2 million copies, "Bleachers" should do as well despite its flaws.

Set mainly in a Texas high school football stadium, this slim novel focuses on former star quarterback Neely Crenshaw, who has returned to Messina to await the impending death of his legendary coach, Eddie Rake.


Think of the toughest, meanest high school coach you ever knew and that's what Eddie Rake was like. Through 418 victories and a six-year winning streak at Messina High, Rake was a god in the little town.

As Rake's "boys" gather in the bleachers to rehash old games and catch up on the news, Neely has mixed emotions. A former high school All-American, Neely is making his first trip back to his hometown in 15 years. Like Rake, Neely was a godlike hero in Messina during his glory years, but his dreams of a glorious college career ended with a knee injury. Now, to paraphrase Yogi Berra, his future is all behind him.

"When you're famous at 18," he says, "you spend the rest of your life fading away."

Neely also can't decide whether he hates Rake or loves him. On his way to record-setting seasons, the coach belittled his players and drove them to exhaustion. Looking back, Neely and his teammates recall some of the grueling practices with humor, but no one wants to talk about the ugly event that they vowed to keep secret.

Neely's attempts to make amends with Cameron, the girl he dumped in high school, fail when he brings up the past. Dismissing his apology, Cameron bitterly points out that she could never understand all the fuss over a silly game.

"Grown men crying after a loss. The entire town living and dying with each game. Prayer breakfasts every Friday morning, as if God cares who wins a high school football game."

Grisham does a fine job of capturing the atmosphere in a small town where every store has the game schedule in the window and no one plans any other activities on Friday night. But this bittersweet story needed more depth and a more complex plot. Some readers accustomed to Grisham's fast-paced legal thrillers might find "Bleachers" as exciting as halftime at a high school football game.

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