Bleachers is a good book. The problem is that its author is John Grisham, and more than just good is expected from him.
It’s Grisham's own fault for raising the bar so high with edge of the seat suspenseful legal thrillers, many made into movies. And it’s not that he hasn’t written books in other genres. Both Skipping Christmas, a holiday tale, and A Painted House, a semi-autobiographical family saga, deviated from the legal stuff -- but they were powerful, compelling stories with passion and detailed analyses of characters and setting.
Bleachers has passion, too; it has the almost obsessive attachment to football that seems pre-programmed into men, and the male bonding and rituals that last a lifetime for those who played it in high school. On the book jacket, there is a small note explaining that Grisham "played (at times) quarterback for the Chargers of the Southhaven High School, Southaven, Mississippi. He was not all-American." That certainly explains his love and reverence for the game. It’s the one pure, deep element in Bleachers, which although smooth, crisp, and tightly-written ends up being a superficial look at one of our national pastimes -- perhaps its most dominating pastime.
Bleachers is the simple story of a larger-than-life football coach and his former players. The story is set in Messina, Mississippi, during four days in October. Messina is a small Southern town of 8,000 souls so obsessed with high school football that their field seats 10,000.
Grisham paints a vivid portrait of the town and wryly agrees with the numbers. "The math had never worked. But they piled in from the county, from out in the sticks where there was nothing else to do on Friday night..in every window of every store around the Messina square there was a large green football schedule, as if the customers and townsfolk needed help in remembering that the Spartans played every Friday."
The town gets its life from football. So does the school, where display cases line the walls because "football was king and that would never change." Until now. Former coach Eddie Rake is dying. A formidable force, he has whipped years worth of the Spartan teams into a high school football legend.
Except for his final letter read out to the entire town at his funeral, we never actually get to know the coach. Instead, we see him through the eyes of protagonist Neely Crenshaw, class of ’87, No. 19, former All-American quarterback, former rising star at Tech before his knee blew out. When Crenshaw left town, there was a mystery surrounding his last encounter with Rake which led to a broken hand and a bloodied nose. No one ever talked about the "altercation." In fact, very few people know about it.
It’s fifteen years later. Crenshaw is divorced, selling real estate in Orlando, and is in town with his teammates Paul, now a successful banker, and Silo, a chop-shop operator, both of whom whom never left town and are happy to update him on all the people they knew. They sit drinking beer from a cooler on the bleachers, just like they did on those long-ago Friday nights -- lights shining on football fields across the country, grown balding men with soft bellies and aching knees looking back on their youth and yearning for the glory days.
They remember how they all longed to wear Spartan green, to survive the brutal August practice marathons, to run the bleachers until they were ready to drop -- and, no matter what, to ultimately win the games. To be champions. They even hear a tape of the last game Crenshaw ever played. Grisham makes that game vivid as the announcers give a blow-by-blow description of the game as they wait for the lights to go off in final tribute to the coach.
Rake, the tough-talking, rough-mouthed coach who was loved and hated, never speaks for himself. But we learn how his harsh methods of building athletes into champions causes a death and a scandal, and costs him his job and his zeal for life.
"Once you have played for Eddie Rake, you carry him with you forever. You hear his voice, you see his face, you long for his smile of approval, and you remember his tongue-lashings and lectures. With each success in life, you want Rake to know about it. You want to say ‘Hey Coach, look at what I ‘ve done,’" Neely finally acknowledges at Rake’s funeral.
Driving out of town, he makes peace with the past:
"…he vowed to return more often. Messina was the only hometown he knew. The best years of his life were there. He’d come back and watch the Spartans on Friday night, sit with his friends and when the name of Eddie Rake was mentioned, he would smile and maybe laugh and tell a story of his own. One with a happy ending."
For those who aspire to play sports or wish they had participated in high school, this book will serve as the encyclopedia of "all you ever wanted to know about high school football and beyond." For others, it will be among the lesser-known books of John Grisham.