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Book Review

John Grisham Leaves the Lawyers Out of the Picture This Time Around

A PAINTED HOUSE By John Grisham; Doubleday; 400 pages, $27.95

February 06, 2001|MICHAEL HARRIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Maybe "A Painted House" is the kind of novel John Grisham intended to write all along, before he broke through with his first legal thriller. To keep his fans and publishers happy, he felt he had to go on cranking out bestselling tales of lawyerly shenanigans, even as his interest in the genre waned. Maybe. It's worth a thought.

We could see symptoms of restlessness two novels ago, in "The Testament," in which Grisham's hero traveled to Brazil, got interested in wetlands ecology, found God and gave up the legal profession. In "The Brethren," the lawyers and judges were back, but Grisham viewed them with uniform distaste; there wasn't a hero to be found, and the entertainment value of the book--aside from the cynical chuckles it provoked--was too dependent on an improbable plot.

In "A Painted House," the plot unfolds far more naturally. The characters are closer to real people, and the setting is one Grisham knows from the inside out. It's the world of his childhood in northeastern Arkansas, as seen through the eyes of 7-year-old Luke Chandler, who lives on an 80-acre cotton farm with his parents and grandparents.

In 1952, the Chandlers are only a little better off than the Depression-era Alabama farmers James Agee described and Walker Evans photographed in "Let Us All Praise Famous Men." Unlike their neighbors the Latchers, the Chandlers aren't sharecroppers, but they rent rather than own their land. They must borrow money from the cotton-gin owner each spring and hope their crop is good enough to repay him in the fall. In bad years, they go into debt. Their house has never been painted.

Postwar affluence is just beginning to trickle into the area. Some farmers work winters in Detroit auto plants. Some leave altogether--a dream Luke's mother has confided to the boy, though his father wants to stay on the land and someday own it. The supply of migrant labor from Ozark "hill people" is drying up, so in the fall of '52 the Chandlers supplement a family of them, the Spruills, with a crew of Mexicans. Both camp on the farm for the six-week picking season.

The weather is treacherous--brutal heat, hail, tornadoes, finally a flood. The stress of the harvest makes tempers snap. And little Luke becomes burdened with adult secrets that, for one reason or another, he feels he has to keep.

He notices that the Spruills' 17-year-old daughter, Tally, and a sneering young Mexican nicknamed Cowboy like each other. He witnesses a fight in which her brother Hank whips three town bullies, then beats one of them to death with a two-by-four.

Luke and Tally sneak out one night to listen by the Latchers' shack as their 15-year-old, unmarried daughter gives birth. The father, Luke learns later, may be his beloved Uncle Ricky, who is 19 and fighting in Korea. Finally, Luke is watching on the night Hank, to avoid prosecution, flees the farm. Cowboy follows, kills Hank with a switchblade knife, takes the $250 Hank won by defeating a carnival wrestler, dumps the body into the swollen St. Francis River, steals Luke's grandfather's pickup and elopes with Tally.

These melodramatic events--and our sense that Luke can be awfully precocious for a 7-year-old--are balanced by Grisham's immersion in the details of rural life, his descriptions of hard work and simple pleasures--church picnics, St. Louis Cardinals games heard on the porch radio. His people--God-fearing and fiercely proud and a bit too fond of violence--are drawn with affection but not with sentimentality.

Can Luke ever spill his secrets? Will the house get painted? Will nationwide social change dislodge the Chandlers from their particular patch of dirt? We come to care about the answers because Grisham makes us care about the Chandlers. "A Painted House" may not be great literature--for that, read Agee--but it's a solid, engaging novel, though there isn't a lawyer in sight. Let's hope Grisham's fans forgive him.

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