A review of John Grisham’s The Painted House

It is perhaps not fair to review The Painted House from a literary perspective, since the literary and stylistic quality of his prose is not part of his appeal. However, the setting out of critical apparatus for objective book reviewing is important, and in an effort to further elucidate the merits of literary as opposed to purely populist fiction, a review of a book which is clearly not literary, might prove interesting, particularly in terms of setting out the criteria for aesthetic judgement: what makes a fiction good or bad?

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

A Painted House
By John Grisham
Random House, February 2001
$27.95 (Hardcover)
0-375-43101-2

John Grisham made $28 million from his writing last year. His is one of the top five bestselling authors, and this year he has had two books in the top ten list simultaneously; The Brethren and A Painted House. His books are now being published with the words “The New Bestseller from John Grisham” before they even go to the bookshops, and most of his novels have been made into very successful films. What makes for a bestseller? Is this now a genre in itself, operating in a separate sphere from other types of fiction. How does Grisham’s latest “Bestseller” The Painted House compare with other literary types of fiction? Certainly Grisham makes no claim to intellectuality. His books are not designed to be studied in university classes, are not part of the literary canon, nor are they classed as literary fiction by publishers, or even designed for posterity. It is perhaps not fair to review The Painted House from a literary perspective, since the literary and stylistic quality of his prose is not part of his appeal. However, the setting out of critical apparatus for objective book reviewing is important, and in an effort to further elucidate the merits of literary as opposed to purely populist fiction, a review of a book which is clearly not literary, might prove interesting, particularly in terms of setting out the criteria for aesthetic judgement: what makes a fiction good or bad? This review will be looking at Grisham’s latest novel, The Painted House, from a literary perpective, attempting to work out its impact, both in terms of the genre of Bestseller and how that fits into a fictive category, and in terms of an overall assessment of the effectiveness of his work.

The Painted House is a departure for Grisham, who is known for his legal thrillers. The story is written from the perspective of Luke Chandler, a seven year old boy. Luke’s family are cotton farmers, and the story is centred around picking season, and Luke’s experiences as he witnesses the interactions between the migrant workers, the hill people and Mexicans who come to help pick the 80 acres of cotton owned by his family. There are a few themes in the book. Firstly there is the psychological – Luke’s coming of age, as he witnesses (through spying) the births and deaths which occur in the lives of the adults around him. Then there is the sociological, as Luke’s narration takes us towards the end of the cotton industry and the move of the rural south away from the bucolic farm life into the industrial age, also hinting at the impact of the Korean war, and the rise of the cult of Baseball. The story itself is not a bad one, and as a portrait of a lost time, an evocative picture of what life was like in the rural South of the US during the 1950s, it works reasonably well. Perhaps this is part of the popularity of the book. However, there are some major flaws in the writing, most of which are stylistic. Firstly the main character and narrator, Luke Chandler, is not well drawn. His language is inappropriate to a seven year old, and his character is only lightly sketched, providing us with little insight into his mind or the sensations he experiences.. One can imagine that the story is perhaps a kind of flashback, a recollection which doesn’t take place in the mind of young Luke at all, but rather the mind of an older, reflective adult, with the capacity to use words like languid, embellishment, flagrant, and phrases like “a misfit from the moment she stepped out of the car” (205) or “scribbled like a woman possessed – humidity dripping lazily above the cotton stalks”, but this is not the way in which the story is presented. Despite the past tense, passive narrative, the point of view is definitely young Luke’s, moving in a linear fashion through his meals, Sunday worship, miniature portraits of the people he meets, visiting family members, bits of conversation, and his increasing understanding of the world and its secrets. There is no sense of another narrator as character; no hint at someone older and wiser, except for the lapses in Luke’s characterisation. If this was the author’s intent, it is not made apparent enough to compensate for Luke’s inappropriate vocabulary, which instead makes empathy impossible, contrasting strongly with the Luke’s occasional lapse into vernacular like “y’all” and “puked”. Despite Luke’s constant observations, there is almost a total lack of characterisation on his part. We know he is a Baseball fanatic, and that he wants to play for the St Louis Cardinals one day, and we see, through his eyes, his impressions of the Baptist church to which he belongs, his friends, the visitors to his house, but we have no idea about this boy – no sense of his inner workings, or what really motivates him, beyond the superficial – a pretty girl’s face or a dream of stardom. And while an ordinary (and Luke is quite ordinary) seven year old is probably not capable of using phrases like “However thick or thin the kinship, the woman was in great agony”, or “during one of her frequent plays for sympathy” (133), he is certainly capable of wondering about himself, who he is, examining the life around him, the world he lives in the kind of fascinating self-exploration which is typical of a young boy. If Luke’s voice were in the local vernacular, something he slips into occasionally but rarely, the colourful Southern accent and expressions might have had a powerful impact, especially if combined with reflection. Compare for example, Frank McCourt’s seven year old in Angela’s Ashes: “I know when Dad does the bad thing. I know when he drinks the dole money and Mam is desperate and has to beg at the St. Vincent de Paul Society and ask for credit at Kathleen O’Connell’s shop but I don’t want to back away from him and run to Mam. How can I do that when I’m up with him early every morning and the whole world asleep” (208). The slight stream of consciousness style combined with the use of the Irish expression gives us more of a sense of young Frank in this one paragraph we get in the entire careful adult type linear narrative of young Luke. The opportunity to develop this boy is just not taken.

The other characters in the book are also shallow, superficially drawn and cliched. There is the easily angered worrier Pappy, the nurturing Gran who insists on a home cooked meal for everyone, the strict father and clean, caring mother. There are the wild mountain people, the Spruill’s with their dangerous son Hank, and the hard working Mexicans with the unpredictable Cowboy. No one achieves any depth, beyond the superficial descriptions given to them by the equally superficial Luke. Cowboy, for example is an important component in the plot, his relationship with the Tally and Hank Spruill forming a pivotal point in the narrative, and his description is limited to a kind of cartoon Pepe the mouse with muscled that bulged and creased: “young, and tall for a Mexican. His eyes were narrow and mean. He had a thin moustache that only added to the fierceness”.

There are also narrative inconsistencies. Although the point of view is primarily first person singular, occasionally the work slips into omniscient, as when conversations are repeated which could not have been heard, for example, Pappy and the Stick, the Sheriff (p 79), or third person, as with “Little Chandler almost wet his pants”. Most of the sentences are monotonous and dull, which despite the strong plot, makes for tedious reading, as in this passage (298): The hardware store was ancient, and toward the rear it became darker and cavern-like. The wooden floors were wet from the traffic and sagged from years of use. At the end of an aisle, I turned and came face-to-face with Tally and Trot. She was holding a gallon of white paint. Trot was holding a quart. They were loitering like everybody else, waiting for the storm to pass.” The sentences rarely vary in length, and this drone like quality accounts for most of the linguistic style of the book. Combined with the, television language and poor characterisation, this makes for a book which is unengaging and dull. The metaphor is basic and the phrases are stock, such as: “hoping desperately”, “one reckless move”, “scalded dog”, “just around the corner”, “cheeks burned”, “take it to my grave”, “was it all a bad dream&”, “beached whale”, “dramatic flair”, “prayed long and hard”, “weak in the knees”, to name just a few of the dull adjectives and cliched phrases sprinkled throughout the text. There are also moments of overt sentiment, whose syrupy description serves to further distance the reader from the action, as when the Latcher children are taken in, the choeless children with tears in their eyes, or the baseball game between the Chandlers and the migrant workers, when Luke strikes out, “I wanted to run into the house and lock the doors”.

One of the things A Painted House does well is plot, and this is a typical characteristic of a bestseller. The suspense leading up to the two murders is strong, as it is with the threat of flood. The narrative moves forward, following closely with the movement of time, moving towards the climaxes in the plot. Although this novel is much slower than Grisham’s usual work, the work is still plot driven, Luke’s observations leading us towards the inevitable consequences of his character’s actions, or the world in which he lives. The plot is relatively interesting too, leaving the reader with secrets which never become resolved. However, the potentially powerful themes never reach fruition, and the plot takes precedence over the writing quality or the potentially powerful themes of the loss of the farm and simultaneous loss of innocent blurring behind the murders, the cliched and unambitious language and the poor characterisation. That said, it is probably better for sales and for filming potential that the novel is not too profound. Literary fiction aims to challenge, to use language in innovative ways. It is more than simply entertaining. It raises the big questions and does so with inventive forms, taking language beyond the limitations of day to day exchange. John Grisham’s latest bestseller does none of these things. It simply entertains without engaging, leaving its readers with a poignant but superficial portrayal of life in rural America in the early 50s, ready, with its basic characterisations and simplistic language, to turn directly into a film, or even a television drama; the perfect Bestseller.

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