After 21 best-selling novels, John Grisham can do whatever he wants. And what he wants, at the moment, is to write short stories. Thus Ford County, the seven-story collection just published and set in the fictional rural North Mississippi enclave he created in his first book, “A Time to Kill.” Grisham’s short stories are a decidedly mixed bag, demonstrating both his strengths (legal chicanery and legal maneuvering) and weaknesses (stock characters and dialogue).
Give him credit for not coasting, though. There are plenty of lawyers in these tales, to be sure, but there is also a young dying AIDS patient ostracized by his small hometown; a grieving father hell-bent on avenging legal injustice and, most entertaining of all, a trio of wayward 20-somethings entrusted with making a much-needed blood donation on behalf of an injured neighbor.
These last appear in the collection’s first story, “Blood Drive,” a picaresque that sends the three young men from Box Hill, Mississippi, to Memphis. A neighbor’s son, injured in a construction accident, is in the hospital and needs blood.
Calvin, Roger, and Aggie wind up shotgunning six-packs on rural roads and, as the evening drags on, their blood donation occurs at a Memphis blood bank rather than the hospital. It’s a nod to their desire to scrounge up money for a strip club rather than visit their injured neighbor in the hospital and help him out.
At the blood bank, Calvin and Aggie pass out when confronted with the blood-collection needles, prompting an onlooker to ask, “Who are these bozos?”
“Mississippi,” the attendant answers.
Grisham takes delight in these ne’er-do-wells. Their encounters with a zealous homeowner along the way — as well as the dreary gentlemen’s club with its watered-down beer and downtrodden dancers — pay New South homage to Faulkner’s “The Reivers.”
“Blood Drive” also marks the introduction of one of Grisham’s most unfortunate verbal tics: the mangling of the Southern colloquialism y’all. Throughout this collection, it is written “ya’ll,” as in “ya will,” instead of “you all.” That a life-long Mississippian, not to mention an army of editors at Doubleday, can’t figure out to how spell y’all is downright disheartening. Bless their hearts.
For the amateur copy editor in this reader, it’s distracting every time it’s (mis)used, and it’s used quite often in “Ford County.”
It’s also part of a larger dialogue and dialect problem afflicting Grisham. As Strunk & White and many others advise, when it comes to dialect, less is more. Much more. Be spare and be careful. Too many exchanges here read as if they’re straight out of “Hee-Haw,” with “I guess thangs’re okay” and
“Damn, son, you’re makin’ more noise than a horse eatin’ corn” serving as typical examples.
In short, too often these Mississippians seem to speak the way Hollywood would have them speak. At other times, they suffer from excessive exposition and tin-ear philosophizing. A homicidal kidnapper morphs into Clarence Darrow when he asks his victim, “[I]s this justice, or is it just another courtroom victory? The two have little in common.”
When it comes to greed and motivation, Grisham’s aim is much sharper. Two of the best stories involve naked avarice. In “Fish Files,” a no-luck work-a-day attorney finds an unexpected way of shedding his humdrum life, while “Quiet Haven” offers an amusing account of an opportunist who specializes in retirement homes.
“Casino” also works in this vein, with romantic revenge spurring a cuckold into becoming a mercenary card sharp, with satisfying (and humorous) results.
“Fetching Raymond” is the weakest of the bunch. It’s a depressing tale of an aimless, low-rent pair of brothers and their mother driving to the state prison to bring home the body of a younger brother after his execution. It meanders and drags on, with few surprises or insights beyond the dreariness of repeated mistakes and poor judgment.
Grisham closes with the Southern Gothic-tinged “Funny Boy,” pairing a young white AIDS patient with an aging black woman. Set in 1989, the story conveys the misguided prejudice and ignorance surrounding AIDS cases then and, to some degree, now.
“Ford County” marks an interesting departure for Grisham. These stories fail to convey the relentless narrative pull of his more familiar works, including his two most recent novels, “The Associate” and “The Appeal.”
Grisham aims for more of a sweet-tea-on-the-porch pacing here, but, in doing so, abandons his strongest writing muscle.
Early interviews for the book seem to confirm his enthusiasm for working in a different form, so it’s likely we’ll be hearing from the citizens of Ford County again in the future. Readers, meanwhile, have already offered their verdict, with yet another No. 1 title for Grisham.
Erik Spanberg is a freelance writer in Charlotte, N.C.