It had been years since I’d read a John Grisham novel, not since 1996, when I put down The Runaway Jury. The book was fine, even enjoyable, but my taste had moved on to the likes of James Lee Burke, whose Cadillac Jukebox came out the same year and whose depth and complexity, to say nothing of style, grabbed my attention. That was also the year of John Le Carre’s The Tailor of Panama. When I wanted suspense, I was finding, there were choices of far greater sweep and command than Grisham, though he always did take me for a rollicking good ride.
When I read that Grisham was situating his latest novel, Gray Mountain in Appalachia, I shrugged my shoulders. Though he may be a southerner, Grisham is no child of the mountains. A riveting page-turner against a backdrop of hillbillies and hemlocks was about all I could expect–fine, but I had no need of that. No long trips are in the offing and I hope I won’t be inhabiting waiting rooms for the hours and hours that make such books positively lust inducing.
Then I heard that Grisham was taking on Big Coal in his new novel. That, I thought, could be interesting, though the struggle against the mining companies is now much more than a century old and no closer to resolution than it has ever been. The thirst for fuel does more than blind us to the realities of climate change… it even leads us to ignore damage to people and places that occur right before our eyes, not just five, ten, twenty years down the road.
At best, I thought, Grisham would simply be reiterating the sadness and helplessness of the lyrics of John Prine’s 1971 song “Paradise”:
Then the coal company came with the world’s largest shovel
And they tortured the timber and stripped all the land
Well, they dug for their coal till the land was forsaken
Then they wrote it all down as the progress of man.
In a way, that’s exactly what he has done.
Among, fortunately, other things.
Like many whose parents are Appalachian but who grew up away from the mountains (visiting many times a year, of course), I am attuned to even the smallest hint of hillbilly slight. So, it was with a feeling of here-we-go-again that I read this passage from the main character’s first experience in the hills of western Virginia:
An old pickup truck approached from ahead, slowed, and seemed ready to stop. The driver leaned out and yelled, “Come on, Romey, not again.”
The cop turned around and yelled back, “Get outta here!”
The truck stopped on the center line, and the driver yelled, “You gotta stop that, man.”
The cop unsnapped his holster, whipped out his black pistol, and said, “You heard me, get outta here.”
This, I thought as I read, looks like it is going to be another book of vulgar stereotypes of Appalachia. Too bad, for I had been enjoying the book, so far.
But Grisham was fooling with me. Romey, it turns out, is the author’s way of showing his readers that he recognizes the stereotypes but will be going out of his way not to indulge in them. Quickly, Romey is shown to be a fool even in local terms and the fear he engenders quite unwarranted. We are quickly introduced to Donovan Gray, whose family gave the name to the title location: “He wore faded jeans, hiking boots, a fashionable sports coat, no tie.” Throughout the book, Grisham goes out of his way to depict what he has discovered is the reality of Appalachia, not the popular perceptions. Gray and almost all of the other characters (all, except for the bad guys, the main character’s parents, and a wealthy lawyer or two) ring true–especially the Appalachians. That, from my point of view, is something of a feat.
There’s a reason for Grisham’s care, and that’s the contrast he wants to create between the Appalachians and Big Coal. He can’t solve the problems of mountaintop removal but he can show its quite real impact on human beings–if he can create characters who do not fall into Appalachian stereotypes. Deliberately, he leaves the battle in his book unresolved, just as the actual battle for the survival of the coal-producing parts of Appalachia remains unresolved.
Though the thrills I had long associated with Grisham are missing from this book, for the most part, I like it better, far better than I had thought I would. The care and sensitivity shown surprised me, and my respect for Grisham has grown. The only thing I would wish, however, is that he had found a way to expand the portrait of mountain life to include all of its parts: There is no mention of African-American Appalachians anywhere in the book.