Saturday, May 26, 2012

John Grisham's Calico Joe

Calico Joe
by John Grisham
Doubleday (April 10, 2012)
208 pages
ISBN:   0385536070
For teens and adults

I hear people say that baseball is so boring, but they are so wrong.  Granted, baseball, played in a park, is a laid-back summer sport.  You hang out, drinking beer and eating dogs and Cracker Jack, just watching the game progress at its own pace.  (Baseball, unlike other major sports, is not played by the clock.)  All of a sudden something exciting will happen.  A home run.  Three strikeouts.  A double play.  An impossible catch in the outfield.  There's real drama in this sport.

I can't get enough of good baseball stories either.  Like Calico Joe.  Calico Joe, Grisham's first baseball novel, is my first Grisham novel ever--yes I'm coming late to the table--but it won't be my last.  Calico Joe is the story of one pitch that ends three baseball careers.  Paul Tracy, only twelve in 1973 when the story begins chronologically, is rooting for two players:  Warren Tracy, his dad cum Mets pitcher, and the Cub's wunderkind rookie, Calico Joe.  Thirty years later, Paul is on a healing mission to bring these two men together again to bring closure to their story.

Calico Joe is a novel of what could have been and takes its place beside W. P. Kinsella's Shoeless Joe and Bernard Malamud's The Natural.  The best baseball stories involve the loss of baseball and an attempt at finding the way back to the most romantic of American sports.  Baseball's not just about today; unlike any other sport, baseball is about history and who we were.  In all of these novels of baseball the past and the present intersect to redeem the sport for the main characters.  Think Shoeless Joe's Ray Kinsella, The Natural's Roy Hobbs, and now Calico Joe's Paul Tracy.

Just as Shoeless Joe (you may know it by its movie name Field of Dreams) is populated with Black-Sox-era players like Shoeless Joe Jackson, Joe's cast includes baseball greats from the seventies.  In one scene Willie Mays, now in his last baseball season, converses memorably with Paul in the Mets' dugout.

Click here to buy Calico Joe from Amazon.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Goodbye Harry's Law

First season I cheered.  Second season I jeered.  But now that NBC has decided to pull the plug on Harry's Law, despite it's being the second most watched drama on NBC, I have to admit I'm going to miss it.  Two episodes ago, Harry and company revisited the locals with Harry defending a gang member accused of killing a cop, and she remarked that she wished they would get more clients from off the street like they did last year.  (Had she only read my blog, she would have come to that conclusion much sooner!)  Last episode Harry lamented not being between 18 and 49--that golden demographic the sponsors so desperately want to attract.  This is what killed David Kelly's last drama, Boston Legal.  Too bad.  Sponsors and networks, listen up:  Viewers over 50 spend money, too, so stop taking our television programs ("our stories," as we call them) off the air.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Keeping It Real at The Jot 'Em Down Store with Lum and Abner

Which comes first:  plot or character?  I say most good stories are character driven and that plot comes from character.  If you're a writer struggling with character development, one of the best examples of character-driven drama that I can point to is the old radio program, Lum and Abner, which aired from 1931 to 1954.  If you've never listened to radio drama/comedy, you've missed out on one of the most entertaining of all art forms.  Created by Chet Lauck (Lum) and Norris Goff (Abner), Lum and Abner centers on two old backwoodsy men who own and operate The Jot 'Em Down General Store in the fictional town of Pine Ridge, Arkansas.  The real town of Waters, Arkansas, which served as inspiration for Pine Ridge, actually had its name legally changed to Pine Ridge in 1936.

Lum and Abner's fictional exploits stem from the unusual characters that they are.  Lum, pretentious with dreams of being a big man, considers himself president of the Jot 'Em Down Store and serves as the town's justice of the peace.  Lum often ventures into new enterprises with the hopes of making a big splash on the world.  Often his schemes are attempts to make a lot of money, attempts which are usually foiled by Squire Skimp, local flim flam man.  Other schemes are attempts by the old bachelor to woo the newest in a long line of school marms with whom he has fallen hopelessly in love.  In one series of episodes within the span of a couple of months Lum falls in love with Miss Fredericks, opens a library, becomes a lion tamer and a fight manager, and starts a bakery.  His side kick Abner is a simpler sort with a literal turn of mind and a much more practical nature than Lum.  It is Abner's misunderstanding of most of what Lum says that drives much of the humor, humor that is more innocent than that of contemporary drama, but is actually quite hilarious and surprisingly stands up to the passage of three-quarters of a century.

In addition to doing the voices of Lum and Abner, Lauck and Goff voiced all of the other characters.  Lauck was Cedric the village idiot and Grandpappy Spears, the feisty old cuss who hangs out in the store to play checkers and gossip with Abner.  Goff was most of the other characters including Squire Skimp and Dick Huddleston, the voice of reason amidst all of the eccentric characters in town--think Andy Griffith in Mayberry.  Lauck and Goff went on to act in several Lum and Abner movies and even filmed a t.v. pilot though the television program never came to fruition.  The Andy Griffith Show, which employed several  Lum and Abner writers, is an homage to the old radio program.  Howard McNear (Floyd the barber) was a regular guest star on Lum and Abner, and Opie and Gomer were named after Opie Cates and Gomer Bates of Lum and Abner fame.  Norris Goff even appeared as a shop keep in the sixth season of The Andy Griffith Show.

Lum and Abner originally aired before I was even born, but the old radio program began playing in syndication on radio stations around the country back in the early seventies when we were living in Pennsylvania.  My father, who had listened to radio shows in his boyhood, introduced me to Lum and Abner.  When we moved to Illinois a few years later, we found several southern Illinois stations that aired the syndicated Lum and Abner, and we followed the show as faithfully as any television sitcom.  Years later, in 1989, I moved to Ohio and found a station in Portsmouth that was still running Lum and Abner.

In the nineties I became a card-carrying member of The National Lum and Abner Society and bought up all of the extent Lum and Abner episodes on audio cassettes.  The episodes run for about 15 minutes a piece, and I like listening to one or two of them while cooking or driving.  Today anyone can listen to the program online:  For some good old-timey fun, click here.  To get the flavor of Lum and Abner, I recommend starting with episode #261 (10/9/41) "Lum's Infatuated with Miss Fredericks" and listening through at least episode #290 (11/27/41) "The Petition of the Lion."  By the way, grade-school children (being less jaded than their older siblings) will probably love Lum and Abner.  My own daughter used to listen to the program at bedtime.

This you tube link is the traditional Lum and Abner Christmas story that aired every Christmas of the show's run beginning in 1933.  The story takes place in Pine Ridge, but reflects Bethlehem's nativity story.