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Batting for baseball
In his latest offering, John Grisham has chosen to adopt his alternative avatar. Putting aside his courtroom attire of the legal-eagle whose law based thrillers have shot him to the tops of the international bestseller charts ever since the publication of his first book, A Time to Kill, the author has donned the costume of his favourite sport: baseball. Much in the same way that India is crazy about cricket, baseball is the beloved 'summer game' of Americans, with its sun-warmed stadium stands, and the smell of new-mown grass and roasted peanuts, and the sudden thunderous roar from the spectators as the batter hits a home run.
Grisham has doffed his cap to baseball in two previous books, Bleachers and Playing for Pizza. This time around he makes the diamond-shaped playing field an arena for an allegory about good and evil, and the healing power of redemption.
As befits what is essentially a modern morality play in the guise of a novel, the story is simple and straightforwardly told in a series of flashbacks and flash forwards with the voice of the first-person narrator, Paul Tracey, bridging the two time zones. Paul is the grown-up son of Warren Tracey, a professional baseball player of the 1970s who destroyed his personal life with alcoholism and family abuse and his sports career by committing an unpardonable sin on the field: deliberately and with malicious intent crippling for life an up-and-coming superstar batter, Joe Castle, by 'beaning' him by a ball aimed at his head.
The story begins with Warren, now an embittered old man long estranged from his family, dying of pancreatic cancer. Paul, a successful computer programmer, travels halfway across the country to meet him and finally to confront him with the crime that Warren committed 30 years ago but has never acknowledged: near-fatally injuring Joe Castle, the baseball player from the small town of Calico Rock, who came to be revered by sports fans as Calico Joe and who was the hero of Paul's blemished childhood.
Persuaded by Paul, will the dying Warren seek atonement for what he did 30 years ago and go to Calico Rock to seek forgiveness from the man whose amazing sports career he so cruelly ended, turning him into a shambling, physically and mentally impaired shadow of the legend he might have become? No prizes for guessing the ending. But then, suspense is not what this story is all about. It is a gently told yet highly evocative tale of childhood, and coming of age, and of guilt and its expiation, with baseball as the metaphor that holds it all together. And don't worry if you're a cricket buff and know as much about baseball as you do about mah-jongg. Anticipating such lack of knowledge among his international readership, the author has prefaced his book with a 34-page introduction - Such A Simple Game - which with admirable lucidity spells out for the uninitiated reader the terminology and the rules of the game that backdrops the story of Calico Joe.
Who knows? After you've finished the book you might, between IPL matches, surf the channels to see if you can catch a Mets vs Cardinals game...
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