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Grisham fumbles with latest book

Kaitlynn Riely | Tuesday, October 9, 2007

John Grisham needs to go back to writing legal thrillers. It’s not that Grisham’s new book is bad. “Playing for Pizza” is a story about a disgraced third-string quarterback for the Cleveland Browns who is forced out of the NFL and ends up playing football in Italy. Like all his books, it’s well written, with an interesting plot line and a sympathetic lead character.

But Grisham’s name is synonymous with thrilling legal battles, with idealistic lawyers struggling for justice against the forces of corruption. His books are bestsellers because readers know Grisham will sweep them away with tales of intrigue, and they will cheer for the protagonist, despite his flaws, as he overcomes the odds. Grisham weaves a nice story in his new book, but it’s not a page-turner like his 18 previous novels.

“Pizza” still retains some Grisham-isms. The book’s hero, Rick Dockery, fits the typical Grisham male character mold. He is young and attractive – an underdog with a weakness for women. Dockery becomes Cleveland’s public enemy No. 1 after single-handedly losing an AFC Championship game for the Browns. Dockery’s agent manages to find him a new team far away in Italy. Even in a land of soccer, there is a Super Bowl.

So Dockery flees to Parma, Italy, away from the angry fans who tried to storm his hospital bed as he recovered from a concussion, and the Cleveland Post columnist who declares him the greatest goat in the history of professional sports.

Grisham knows a lot about football. The same attention to detail he once used to describe the murder of Supreme Court justices and a pelican brief is now turned to details about football. Parts of his book read like the sports section of a newspaper.

By placing Dockery in Italy, Grisham gets a chance to tell his readers all he knows about the country – the food, the culture, the churches and the opera.

“The Broker,” a legal thriller Grisham published in 2005, was also set in Italy. In “Pizza,” the country is almost a supporting character. When Dockery has a day off from practice, his lady friend drags him around Italy to accompany her on a quest to tour the whole country. At times, the reader feels as exhausted from traveling as Dockery does.

Instead of partners or associates in a law firm, the supporting characters in “Pizza” are Dockery’s teammates and coach, who play football for their love of the game and, as the title indicates, for the pizza and beer they feast on after the games and practices.

A perpetual third-stringer in the NFL, Dockery finds his niche in Italy. In Italy he is a major player in a minor sport. Reek, as the Italians call him, becomes a hero for his teammates. Like most of Grisham’s characters, he has his weaknesses. He blows a game after drinking too much, he womanizes and he’s arrogant. In spite of these flaws, we still cheer for Dockery when he completes a pass and when he delivers a blow to the Cleveland Post’s cruel sports columnist.

But Dockery isn’t battling for justice or defending Parma from corruption. He’s just playing football. If “Playing for Pizza” had been written by someone other than Grisham, readers could close the book, satisfied after a good story. But from Grisham, what’s expected is suspense, more suspense than a football game in Italy could provide.