The best sports novels do not necessarily have the greatest descriptive details or the most symbolic parallelism. The best sports stories feel real. The emotions, the events, the characters simply have to feel real. John Grisham’s latest novel, Bleachers, fails to capture the power and intensity inherent on the playing field and, while enjoyable to read, is a disappointingly mediocre book from one of America’s most successful writers.

Just picking up the book, one can already see the difference between a stereotypical Grisham novel and Bleachers. It is unheard of for Grisham to write a novel less than 200 pages long. Classic Grisham books such as The Pelican Brief and The Client have consistently spilled over 500 pages. Bleachers, however, a story guided loosely by Grisham’s experience as a high school quarterback, comes up short, in length and in depth. Most of the faults in the novel are directly related to Grisham’s failure to develop his plot or characters in just 163 pages. Any story that can be read in just a few hours has to be poignant and strong. Grisham’s tale comes off as flat, and leaves the readers looking for more.

Bleachers focuses on Neely Crenshaw, a high school all-American quarterback who returns to his hometown for the first time in 15 years. Only the death of his old coach can bring him back to essina, Texas, home of the Spartans.

Former athletes can all relate to Neely, as the fresh memories of applause and cheers become distant and bitter. There comes a certain point after graduation, or that last game, that athletes realize they must move on.

While this theme was brought up throughout the novel, Grisham skirted the emotions and unveiled a shallow lead character. A hero in his youth, Neely, now a real estate salesman, struggles with his inability to live up to expectations. The readers pick up hints of sympathy but never feel truly sorry for the lead character. His internal conflict stays locked inside, instead of being revealed by a usually descriptive Grisham.

In his legal dramas, Grisham describes in beautiful but simple detail how events happen, using key adjectives to bring the reader closer to the characters. In a shorter novel, while equally clear as his previous tales, Grisham is unable to develop the characters. Neely’s teammates, who all return home for their coach, are undistinguishable from one another. They are just old friends and, despite Grisham’s attempts to give them subtle characteristics, they are unmemorable at best. In the end, there is no difference between the drug dealer, the banker, the prisoner or the coffee shop owner.

Conflicts move slowly, if at all, throughout the story, and Neely’s weird experience with his high school darling, Cameron, is but an awkward and inaccurate portrayal of long-lost love, as the reader cares about neither character. The conflict with his coach, a seemingly painful burden that Neely has carried for 15 years, leaves the reader not feeling sympathetic, but merely indifferent.

Grisham’s ability to tell a story cannot be completely dismissed, as his details and descriptions still fill every page. His effort to artfully describe Coach Rake or the small town, however, is not enough to redeem the reader’s growing apathy.

The highlight of Bleachers is a scene shared by the teammates in which they listen to a tape of one of their last games together. Players from years prior and since gather around to hear the announcer call the game, beautifully intertwined with dialogue and commentary. The result is a scene that moves forward briskly with anticipation and creativity.

This beautiful scene, however, cannot mask a novel that falls short of expectations. Grisham is a great storyteller whose creativity and mastery of the English language make his novels effective and easy to read. It takes more than easy reading, however, to make a novel great. It takes deep plots, strong characters and real emotions – in all of these, Bleachers comes up undeniably short.

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