SHORT AND SOUTHERN
by John M. Floyd
No, I’m not talking about me; I can be described by only one of those adjectives. I’m referring to Ford County, the recent collection of short stories by John Grisham. They’re not crime fiction (although a crime is mentioned in each of the seven stories) and they’re actually not very short — about forty or fifty pages each. But they’re definitely Southern.
I think that’s one reason I enjoyed them so much. I’m fond of Eudora Welty’s story “Why I Live at the P.O.” because it contained a number of down-home expressions (“as sure as shootin’,” “a conniption fit,” “jump out of my skin,” “as pretty as you please,” “kiss my foot,” “I hope to tell you,” “she talked till she was blue in the face,” “Miss Priss,” “I made no bones about it,” “she better thank her lucky stars,” “it tickled her nearly to death,” etc.) that I’ve heard all my life. That gave the story a familiarity that was fun for a redneck like me — and Grisham’s book does the same kind of thing. It does seem to insist on punctuating “y’all” incorrectly throughout, but I suppose I can live with that.
A Time to Chill
Truthfully, I liked Grisham’s stories in Ford County every bit as much I like his novels. I’ve always thought his greatest strength was his writing style, rather than his plots and storylines, and the same is true of this collection. Like some other fans, I thought his first four novels were his best, but I own first editions of all his books, including the nonfiction The Innocent Man — and have read and enjoyed them all. His prose is, for lack of a better word, accessible. It’s easy to read, often humorous, sometimes educational (The Appeal is a good example of that), and written in such a way that I almost always feel I’m sitting there listening to the story being told rather than reading words on a page. It’s relaxing; you don’t have to work at it.
(And I must clarify something I just said: I don’t own the first edition of A Time to Kill; I bought it later. If I owned, and sold, a first edition of that one my wife and I could probably take that Tahitian vacation we’ve been talking about.)
I was also pleased just to see Grisham try his hand at the short form. I think it helps the credibility and marketability of all of us short-story writers anytime one of the Superstar Novelists publishes a collection of stories, whether it’s a veteran short-fiction writer (Block, Deaver, King, Lansdale) or someone who’s not already well known for his shorts (Grisham, Lehane, James Lee Burke). Who knows, maybe the short story really is experiencing a rebirth in popularity — on a recent trip I seemed to notice people reading AHMM and EQMM and story collections more often than I did in the past.
A Ford County Roadmap
In case you’re interested, here’s a quick summary of the seven stories in Grisham’s collection:
“Blood Drive”: Three good old boys — Roger, Aggie, and Calvin — head off to Memphis to donate blood for their injured friend Bailey, but run into several alcohol-related diversions on the way. (I’m not sure Bailey would’ve wanted the blood from these jokers anyhow.)
“Fetching Raymond”: A woman and her two sons drive to Parchman prison to visit her third son, who’s on death row. Its weird characters make this one of the funniest and most tragic stories in the book.
“Fish Files”: A down-on-his-luck divorce lawyer stumbles upon an old case that, if he can wangle a settlement, could provide him with the windfall he needs to finally escape the town of Clanton forever.
“Casino”: Tractor dealer/entrepreneur Bobby Carl Leach strikes a deal with a Yazoo Indian chief to set up a casino, a venture that doesn’t turn out quite as Bobby Carl had expected.
“Michael’s Room”: One of the two most heart-wrenching stories in the collection, this tale shows what can happen when a small-town lawyer bumps into someone he defeated in a long-ago lawsuit.
“Quiet Haven”: Con man Gilbert Griffin decides to make his fortune by preying on the residents of a local nursing home.
“Funny Boy”: When the gay son of an affluent white family comes back home to Clanton to die of AIDS, the young man’s only friend turns out to be a woman from the black section of town. By far the most emotional story in the book.
Homeland, Sweet Homeland
All told, Grisham does a good job as usual. If you’re not from the South, these characters should be as interesting and outrageous as any you’ve ever read about. If you are from the South, then you’ve already known and worked and attended school with people like these. I swear I think some of them are from my hometown, and a few sound like my cousins.
And when you’re done, you’ll probably have mixed feelings. On the one hand, you’ll wish you lived in a place like Ford County; on the other hand, you’ll thank God you don’t.