John Grisham Online: Ford County review in the New York Times

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green and white leafed plantsJohn Grisham had some story ideas that he didn’t think could sustain full-length narrative. So he did what he customarily does: whatever he wants to. Was anyone at Doubleday going to argue with that?

Mr. Grisham took seven of his unused plot ideas and turned each of them into a sharp, lean tale free of subplots and padding. At an average length of slightly over 40 pages, these narratives are shorter than novellas but longer than conventional short stories. For a fledgling author, this format would be a tough sell; for Mr. Grisham, it’s a vacation from whatever grueling work goes into the construction of fully rigged best sellers. The change invigorates him in ways that show up on the page.

“Ford County” is Mr. Grisham’s only short-story collection. That doesn’t mean he’s put his novelistic instincts aside. This book begins on a light note and ends with a teary one; in between it’s full of tacit suspense that hinges on the bending, breaking and subversion of Mississippi law. Exactly when and how will a tricky legal issue arise? You needn’t see it coming to know it will be there.

In the hive of criminal creativity that is Ford County (the place introduced in Mr. Grisham’s debut novel, “A Time to Kill”) many a citizen seems poised on the brink of trouble. Yet Mr. Grisham often approaches that trouble in wryly humorous fashion, as he does in “Blood Drive,” the book’s opening story. He begins with an emergency: a local named Bailey has been injured in a construction accident in Memphis, and Bailey needs blood donors. Exactly what happened? Nobody’s sure. What work was Bailey doing? Good question. His mother always said he was an assistant foreman, but he turns out to have been a mason’s helper instead.

Soon three stalwarts have been recruited to make a hasty run from Mississippi to Memphis. And it takes remarkably few words for Mr. Grisham to sketch them perfectly. “A hero quickly emerged,” Mr. Grisham writes archly of Wayne Agnor, a k a Aggie, whose ownership of a pickup is his main qualification for the job. The second volunteer is Calvin Marr, conveniently unemployed and eager to see what Memphis is like. The third, the guy nobody wants, is named Roger, and his father seems to volunteer Roger for the job just to get rid of him. Would Roger’s drug history make him a good blood donor? “Needles certainly wouldn’t intimidate him,” Mr. Grisham writes.

Off they go, assured that Roger has quit drinking until Roger produces his first six-pack of beer. (“I did,” he explains. “I quit all the time. Quittin’s easy.”) This leads to drinking, driving, a high-speed escape from a police car and eventually a visit to a Memphis strip club. By the time the three men get to a hospital — one of 10 in Memphis, and not necessarily the right one — it’s after 3 in the morning. Donating blood isn’t possible. Besides, nobody bothered to find out whether Bailey was the injured man’s first or last name.

As “Blood Drive” begins living up to its title, Mr. Grisham leads his threesome down a slippery slope toward life-changing legal consequences. He also leads them into so much trouble that Bailey is the character who emerges least scathed.

Then it’s on to “Fetching Raymond,” another story about a road trip, this one as mysterious in purpose as the Bailey rescue mission was clear. Three no-account Graneys, Inez and two of her sons (one of whom “still lived with his mother because he’d never lived anywhere else, at least not in the free world”), are headed for an unnamed destination. They are making what is apparently a regular pilgrimage for them all.

They’re going to visit a third brother, Raymond, at the prison where he has been spending his family’s scant resources, learning big words (“what the hell is a stipend?” a brother asks), hiring lawyers, firing lawyers and doing some truly terrible writing. Raymond has also insisted on becoming the rare white Delta blues singer on death row.

The death row angle is slipped almost casually into what has until then been a fairly upbeat dysfunctional-family tale. But Mr. Grisham can give his story an unexpected twist without need of a heavy hand. His novels sometimes moralize; these short stories don’t need to because they transform their agendas into pure, vigorous plot. The closing piece, “Funny Boy,” is a poignant account of illness, bigotry and unexpected tenderness, none of it presented as editorializing and all of it incorporated into action.

“Fish Files,” like Mr. Grisham’s most recent novel, “The Associate,” offers an illuminating, blow-by-blow look at the process whereby legal ethics crumble in the face of temptation. A small-town bankruptcy and divorce lawyer gets a potentially lucrative call from a New York hotshot. This causes the Ford County lawyer to access his inner Jimmy Buffett and start dreaming how he can escape to the tropics.

He doesn’t exactly intend to swindle, forge or lie; things just kind of work out that way, as they often do when Mr. Grisham pulls the strings. And if the story winds up as less than a full-fledged drama, it also becomes much more than a well-wrought diversion. Mr. Grisham knows how to make himself eminently readable. In “Ford County” he’s careful to be exacting and informative too.

Also in “Ford County”: “Casino,” in which a Ford County entrepreneur finds it convenient to call himself part of the Yazoo Indian Nation for reasons of casino development and winds up reaping the consequences; “Michael’s Room,” the book’s only faint show of preachiness, in which an unscrupulous defense lawyer who has won a courtroom victory for a pharmaceutical company is given a Dickensian look at how he has affected plaintiff lives; and “Quiet Haven,” the book’s sneakiest story. Why would a nice young man seek work at nursing home after nursing home and keep changing jobs so regularly? The answer isn’t hard to guess, but it’s the tactics that matter. A scam artist can have no better accomplice than Mr. Grisham when it comes to doing the wrong thing but doing it right.

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