Without having read his stuff, I used to be snide about John Grisham. How could he be worth reading, I figured, if everyone was reading him? Then I actually read a Grisham novel, and now I have a different question. Why do we tend to assume that a first-rate storyteller can’t be a first-rate writer?
Unlike a lot of popular novelists who are known for giving us page-turners, Grisham doesn't tell his stories entirely or even mostly on the surface. I’ve especially liked the novels set in rural, fictional Ford County, Mississippi — I loved The Last Juror, and just last week I was totally absorbed in Sycamore Row. And while these books are gripping on the surface, what makes them memorable is what unfolds underneath. Grisham really cares for his people and his communities. He also sees and portrays them for who and what they are.
It’s hard to talk about a writer’s storytelling without giving away a good story, or without getting lost in the twists and the details — but I thought it might work to look at one of the simpler and more affecting short stories in Grisham’s 2009 collection Ford County. The last one here is “Funny Boy,” and on the surface it’s a simple tale. A man in his 30s who is gay, who grew up in this deep-South community and fled it as soon as he could, now has full-blown AIDS and has come home to die.
Adrian’s family, which is faded white aristocracy in the county and is as small-minded as such a family could be, strikes a deal with a long-time tenant, an aged black spinster whose rented home is in Lowtown, the African-American section of fictional Clanton. The family gardener is paid to drive Adrian to Miss Emporia’s small, immaculate home, after which he’s been ordered to scrub his Buick’s interior with disinfectant. Meanwhile, the coffee shop is abuzz with fearful misinformation, a police car slowly drives up and down Emporia’s street, and Emporia, meeting Adrian, “quickly took in the hollow cheeks and eyes and the whitest skin she’d ever seen.”
Within most good stories, the tension that engages us has at least a lot to do with us not knowing how this will end — but here we know Adrian will die. And from this setup, we have a pretty good idea that he and Emporia will strike up some sort of connection, even a friendship. So it’s not that, so much, that pulls us into the story: it’s more how the little world around these two, ruled by fear and appearances, isolates them, judges them, creates an unforgiving environment for the simple decency that they share. And yet, they share it still.
The story has no big crises, no ringing culmination. Toward the end there is only life, of which neither Adrian nor Emporia has a whole lot left, and death, and a connectedness built on shared humanity. There’s even the humor that often softly infuses Grisham’s Ford County fiction.
“I’m basically safe to be around. The only way to catch the disease is through the exchange of bodily fluids, so let’s agree right now that we will not have sex.”
Emporia howled with laughter, and she was soon joined by Adrian. They laughed until their eyes were wet, until the porch shook, until they were laughing at themselves for laughing so hard.
Grisham doesn’t idealize Lowtown any more than he does Clanton’s white community. Once they’ve gathered up the gossip, Emporia’s neighbors and friends begin carping. Her minister tells her: “Some of our members are uneasy around you ... You touch what he touches. You breathe the same air, eat the same food, drink the same water and tea, and God knows what else these days.”
Instead of pushing Adrian out, she stops going to church. A lifelong teetotaler, she even begins to drink with him, if just a little. At the end, it’s just her and him.
A very good story so often gives us what we call a twist — and the one that arrives here is, though mostly surprising, as gentle and quiet as it could be. In their last conversation, Emporia acknowledges something, though never quite directly says it. She says:
“You hear rumors, you know, but no one ever comes out and lives openly, know what I mean?”
“I do indeed.”
“But I’ve never heard of a woman over here who goes for other women. I suspect they kee it hidden and get married and never tell a soul. Or they do like me — they just play along and say they never found the right man.”
“I’m not sad, Adrian. I’ve had a happy life. How ‘bout just a touch more wine?”
Writers of potboilers don’t normally have such a fine touch for what passes unseen, often unspoken, within their characters, their settings, their stories. Grisham has that. I think he’s a first-rate writer indeed — and more so, not less, because he is a great storyteller.