John Grisham, New York Times best-selling novelist known most for penning legal thrillers is back with Playing for Pizza. His latest novel, continues with his recent trend and avoids the small attorney/big case genre that served him so well in the past. Grisham is obviously itching to branch out, exploring the idea of franchising on his hobbies other than law, mainly football and now apparently Italian cooking. Much like Bleachers, his semi autobiographical novel about playing football in a small Mississippi town, Playing for Pizza is about football. More specifically, Italian football.
The book takes place primarily in Parma, Italy. (That’s right. Italy.) It centers around Rick Dockery, a less-than-talented NFL quarterback. The book begins with Dockery lying on his back in a hospital bed, awaking from a concussion. Apparently, during a championship game, Dockery managed to pass the ball three times to the other team. Forced to retire, his only option is to play for a team in Italy.
The book is readable. I found the passages focusing specifically on the game too technical for my liking and tended to skim over them. There are some nice subplots thrown in. Rick, the aging playboy jock, attemps to find a legitimate girlfriend. He chases an opera singer, Gabriella Ballini, a woman from Florence whose career is floundering as well. He goes on to Livvy Galloway, a spoiled sorority girl. Dockery’s personal life is complicated by paternity suits, and a nasty reporter/critic, Charley Cray, who Dockery literally beats into submission. (Telling, no?)
Nevertheless the book is short, at 258 pages. The subplots are thinly drawn. The primary attention of the author is on Rick himself. The character of Rick develops, as he himself is conditioned by his new coach. His game improves, he challenges several personal bests, and he becomes renewed with a sense of optimism and begins to play for love of the game. Hokey, but it works for Disney.
What doesn’t work is Rick’s transformation from an American ignorant to a suave conosseiur of fine things. Rick’s coach, the American Sam seems more concerned about Rick’s clothing and appreciation of all things Italian than his playing. The book could very well be the male version of Pretty Woman, or even My Fair Lady. Dockery is Ezra Doolittle, Sam the Henry Higgins. At one point Sam tells Rick “Italians are very stylish and they’ll watch you carefully, both men and women. You can never be overdressed here.” He continues to urge Rick to fit in with other Italians, to dress better and learn Italian. And surprisingly, Rick does. As the book progresses he goes on to develop that intellect and intuition that all Grisham pretty boys have in his novels. Grisham’s male characters are always intuitive, quick to clever solutions. (And Dick Francis’ boys too, now that I think of it.) Rick is slow in the beginning, one too many concussions perhaps? But he recovers nicely and is as good as any lawyer by the end.
Nevertheless, to change an American jock into an Armani in a few months seems slightly ridiculous. The book is more an introduction to all things Italy, than a serious novel with a serious story and a serious character. Rick is the country bumpkin, gauche and self-absorbed. His conversion begins with food. His first taste of Italian food is described as “For someone who still enjoyed McDonalds, the tastes were astounding. The flavors coated every taste bud in his mouth and made him chew as slowly as possible.” Banal sentences like this coat the book. By the end of the book, Dockery is touring the Italian country side like any aristocratic old matron.
Now I know some serious professional athletes, and I’m not saying they aren’t cultured, or cultivated in the finer things. But for Dockery to change from seasoned, apathetic pro, to fresh, excited optimistic player is plausible. And for Dockery to all of a sudden be ashamed of his American origins and farm-boy heritage is a stretch. (And he does all these things.)
An athlete, becoming better in old age? Yes. An believable sports character who learns to love fine cuisine+opera+dapper clothes. Maybe. I can’t see Michael Vicks doing it.
It’s hard to know if Grisham pulled it off. Perhaps it may hit the bestseller lists, if only for his name. Perhaps Grisham should just write cookbooks. Or legal thrillers. Those were good.