John Grisham’s latest novel, Calico Joe, is something of a departure from the Arkansas-born author’s many bestsellers. Here, Grisham returns to a topic—baseball—that he explored previously in 2001’s A Painted House, the first of his novels not categorized as a legal thriller.
The story toggles effectively between past and present, as protagonist Paul Tracey recalls the magical summer of 1973, when a rookie named Joe Castle joined the Chicago Cubs and proceeded to set the National League on fire with an astounding and unprecedented display of hitting. Castle’s heroics propel the Cubs on a path to the playoffs, and like most every other baseball fan everywhere, young Paul is smitten with the multitalented young star.
But Paul is the son of Warren Tracey, a veteran pitcher for the rival New York Mets and a surly, unhappy womanizer prone to physical violence at home. Warren faces Joe Castle that same summer in an important ball game at Shea Stadium. Paul, sitting in the stands, watches as his father throws a fast ball at Castle’s head, causing irreparable injury and ending the rookie’s brief but legendary career.
Fast forward to 2003, when Paul hatches a scheme to reconnect with his father—who left the family years before and is now dying of cancer—and force him to travel to Arkansas to make amends with Castle, who has spent the past 30 years physically impaired and working as a baseball groundskeeper.
Grisham deftly blends fact and fiction in his baseball accounts from the past, populating his story with real ballplayers from the era and neatly establishing a childlike fascination with statistics and heroic athletic feats as seen through Paul’s eyes as a youngster. Even the novel’s main event—the beaning of Castle—recalls actual historical events of 1920, when New York Yankees pitcher Carl Mays beaned Cleveland Indians shortstop Ray Chapman. (Chapman passed away the next day in the only incident in the history of the game when a batter died from being hit with a pitched ball.)
Yet beneath all the baseball lore and Grisham’s obvious affection for the game, Calico Joe offers a sad but real tale about fathers and sons and the difficulties family members can experience when attempting to re-establish severed bonds. As with all Grisham novels, it is a smart, smooth read—and it’s guaranteed to entice thoughtful fans of the summer game.