"Bleachers," John Grisham's latest, is intended to bring back memories of those who made deep impressions on us during our formative years. Reading "Bleachers," however, is more likely to make you relive those awful times of hearing someone who just can't get over high school prattle on and on about the Good Old Days.
Neely Crenshaw was a high school All-American quarterback in Messina, a town where football was the religion and Coach Eddie Rake was its pope for more than 40 years. Now Coach Rake is on his death bed, and Neely and many of his old teammates have gathered to pay last respects.
Neely suffered a career-ending knee injury in college. Shunning the outpouring of sympathy he was sure to get, coupled with a secret shared about the Big Game in which he led Messina to a state championship, Neely never has returned even once to hometown for a visit.
The tale opens with Neely and Paul Curry, his top receiver and best friend in town, catching up on people and things in the bleachers of their old stadium. They talk like people who haven't spoken in 10 years, though Grisham says they get on the phone every few months.
"Bleachers" ends with a made-for-the-movies funeral, with on-cue emotional revelations and a warm glow where everyone learns that they all love and loved each other after all.
If "Bleachers" were nonfiction, readers might become more involved in wanting to learn about a football coach and the effect he had on his players.
But even then, it would be stopped short of its goal. Rake may have dominated his players' lives, but he doesn't really come alive here. Even at only 163 pages, Grisham's book is padded.
"Bleachers" is like a bad three-act play. First, readers listen to old teammates catch up on the lives of people we've never heard of and only a few of whom we meet, then we hear them listen to an audiotape of the broadcast of a game we haven't seen. Finally, we go to the funeral of a man we haven't really gotten to know.
Neely is yet another self-involved Grisham character drifting through life. But without Grisham's customary thriller trappings, getting involved with Neely's crisis of faith requires a depth of characterization that the author doesn't achieve here.
The lessons learned in "Bleachers" are obvious, yet the characters treat them as bursting from an original font of wisdom. This is all so pathetic it's certain to become a Kevin Costner movie.
By far, the best moment of this book is when the high school sweetheart whom Neely can't get over exclaims in exasperation, "Oh, get a life. And grow up while you're at it. You're not a football hero anymore."
In recent years, I have enjoyed Grisham's nonlawyer books - "A Painted House" and "Skipping Christmas" - far more than his legal thrillers, which have ranged from awful ("The Bretheren") to the clumsy ("King of Torts").
Grisham, however, fumbles this attempt to cross into new territory. If you're looking for an encounter group with dull ex-football players, "Bleachers" is the book for you.
Otherwise, look elsewhere for reading fun. In a field of first-string books, "Bleachers" is barely a benchwarmer.