”This is not a legal thriller,” John Grisham writes in an introduction to A Painted House. ”In fact, there is not a single lawyer, dead or alive, in this story.” The super selling author’s latest novel is, however, a genre piece. It’s just a different genre: the Southern coming of age story. And — surprise, surprise — Grisham takes command of this literary category just as forcefully as he did legal thrillers with ”The Firm” a decade ago. This gem of a semiautobiographical novel, originally serialized in somewhat different form in Grisham’s magazine, the Oxford American, comes within spitting distance of the finest accounts of growing up below the Mason Dixon line, both fictional (Harper Lee’s ”To Kill a Mockingbird”) and real (Rick Bragg’s ”All Over but the Shoutin”’).
Set in 1952 Arkansas, ”House” is narrated by 7 year old Luke Chandler, the only child in a family of cotton farmers. Faced with a labor shortage at harvest time, Luke’s father and grandfather must hire a hillbilly clan, the Spruills, as well as 10 Mexican migrant workers to help pick the crop. The de facto caste system that exists within this lowest stratum of society is memorably rendered, as is the crushing difficulty of the labor and constant worry over the weather (”We would pray for weeks for a good rain… and as soon as the ground was soaked, Pappy and my father would start watching the clouds and telling flood stories”).
Lest this sound too sleepy, like some fictionalized version of ”The Farmer’s Almanac, ” fear not: In addition to floods and tornadoes, the plot packs in an illegitimate birth, an interracial affair, and a couple of gory killings. Never let it be said this man doesn’t know how to spin a good yarn.
What’s remarkable about ”House” is the striking simplicity of Grisham’s language. Using a 7 year old’s sparse vocabulary, he creates sparklingly poetic sentences: ”For the next month I would go to the fields at sunrise, drape a nine foot cotton sack over my shoulder, and stare for a moment at the endless row of cotton, the stalks as tall as me, then plunge into them, lost as far as anyone could tell.”
”House”’s endearing cast of Southern eccentrics includes Luke’s grandfather, Pappy, who insists on driving his 1939 Ford truck at precisely 37 miles an hour; his grandmother, whose vile home remedies once put her previously constipated husband in the outhouse for two solid days; Otis, a one eyed World War I vet who lays gravel with the assistance of his pet monkeys; and 12 year old Trot Spruill, who uses his withered left arm as an excuse to avoid helping his relatives toil in the Chandlers’ cotton fields. The novel’s heavies — Trot’s dumb brute older brother, Hank, and Cowboy, a switchblade sporting Mexican — are almost as scary as ”Mockingbird”’s Boo Radley.
More alluring is Tally, Trot and Hank’s 17 year old sister, who allows Luke to watch her bathe in a local creek. Her flashes of flirtation stir prematurely complicated feelings in the boy: ”Tally at times was distant and aloof, always mysterious, always moody, and I adored her completely. Walking with her… made me feel twenty years old.”
This is the kind of book you read slowly because you don’t want it to end. Maybe it hasn’t. On the 387th and penultimate page, as the Chandlers start a new chapter in their lives, Luke declares, ”Our adventure was now beginning.” And even as Grisham takes a break from his hugely profitable thrillers to try a more personal brand of writing, you find yourself hoping he’ll proceed on to that most crassly commercial of literary genres: the sequel.