When a war hero loses his way

The Washington Times Daily - - EDITORIAL - By John Greenya John Greenya, a Wash­ing­ton writer and critic, is the au­thor of “Gor­such: The Judge Who Speaks For Him­self” (Si­mon and Schus­ter, 2018).


By John Gr­isham Dou­ble­day, $29.95, 420 pages

One cold Oc­to­ber day in 1946, back-from-the-re­ported-dead war hero Pete Ban­ning of Clay­ton, Mis­sis­sippi, goes to his Methodist church and points his Army-is­sue Colt .45 at the young pas­tor.

“Pete, no, no,” The minister says, “If it’s about Liza, I can ex­plain.”

BANG, BANG, and then BANG again. Two shots to the body, and then one to the head.

Ban­ning makes no at­tempt to flee, and when ar­rested of­fers no ex­pla­na­tion, At trial, he pleads not guilty, of­fers no de­fense, refuses to co­op­er­ate with his lawyers and for­bids them to ap­peal his con­vic­tion. When Florry, his sis­ter and only sib­ling, and his two col­lege-age chil­dren beg him to ex­plain why he did it, he refuses to re­ply.

The reader may be re­minded of two clas­sic works of Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture, Her­man Melville’s short story “Bartelby the Scrivener” and “Richard Cory,” the still-star­tling poem by Ed­win Ar­ling­ton Robinson. In the 1853 short story, a copy­ing clerk in a law of­fice sud­denly refuses to con­tinue work­ing, and says only, “I would prefer not to.” He is even­tu­ally dis­missed, goes to prison and dies.

In the Robinson poem, writ­ten al­most half a cen­tury later, a town’s rich­est and muchre­spected cit­i­zen con­founds his ad­mir­ers by com­mit­ting sui­cide. (“… So on we worked, and waited for the light, and went with­out the meat, and cursed the bread. And Richard Cory, one calm sum­mer night, went home and put a bul­let through his head.”)

In the jail, when Florry and Pete’s chil­dren, Joel and Stella, share his last meal (fried pork chops, whipped pota­toes and boiled okra — this is the South, af­ter all) Pete, de­spite his “sta­tus” is still wants to lec­ture his kids, telling them, “Life is never cheap … Ev­ery day is a gift, and don’t for­get that.”

But what about the pas­tor’s life, Joel asks, and Pete replies, with what seems to be the par­tial mes­sage of this book, “He de­served to die, Joel. You’ll never un­der­stand it, and I suppose you’ll learn one day that life is filled with things we can never un­der­stand … There are a lot of mys­ter­ies out there. Ac­cept them and move on.”

Pete Ban­ning has one fi­nal re­quest, which the sher­iff grants. When it’s time, he wants to walk from the jail to the court­house where he is to be elec­tro­cuted. As he does, he no­tices that hun­dreds of World War II vets have lined the street lead­ing to the court­house. As he walks by, they snap to at­ten­tion and salute him. Like his fam­ily, they too have no idea why this truly au­then­tic war hero did what he did.

A year af­ter the pas­tor’s mur­der, the State of Mis­sis­sippi dusted off Old Sparky, the in­fa­mous elec­tric chair, which it trans­ported around the state as needed, and sent it to Ford County, where it was used to ex­e­cute Pete Ban­ning.

That’s Part One, the book’s first third, and all we know about Liza, Pete’s loved and lovely wife and the mother of his chil­dren, is that the pas­tor men­tioned her in what be­came his fi­nal breath, and that she’s in a mental in­sti­tu­tion where Pete com­mit­ted her.

In Part Two, which is al­most as long as Part One, John Gr­isham fills in the back story. He tells how Pete and Liza met, courted and mar­ried, and de­scribes the Ban­ning cotton farm, which has been in the fam­ily since 1818, and which in Part Three be­comes the “spoils” in a wrong­ful death suit brought by the pas­tor’s widow and her new hus­band, a less-than-eth­i­cal lawyer.

Part Two also in­cludes a very lengthy sec­tion that re-cre­ates Pete’s war­time ex­pe­ri­ences in the Philip­pines, in­clud­ing his forced par­tic­i­pa­tion in the hor­rific Bataan Death March.

While the long war­time reprise is very well done, I thought it dis­tracted from the main story, and found my­self wish­ing that af­ter open­ing with the mur­der, he’d sim­ply told the tale chrono­log­i­cally. John Gr­isham is a premier story-teller, but this is his 39th novel, which may be why I found my­self lik­ing it far less than his ear­lier books. (Frankly, when it comes to nov­els about le­gal mat­ters, given my druthers I’d take Scott Turow.)

But, while I was dis­tracted by con­ver­sa­tions that of­ten sounded like bad movie di­a­logue, I ad­mired the de­tailed in­for­ma­tion Mr. Gr­isham pro­vided about how the law and the mil­i­tary op­er­ated in 1940s Amer­ica. In the novel’s con­clud­ing third, the au­thor ties all — or al­most all — of the loose lines to­gether in a way that most read­ers will find both ac­cept­able and plau­si­ble.

He also says, in the ac­knowl­edg­ments sec­tion, that many years ago, while serv­ing briefly in the Mis­sis­sippi leg­is­la­ture, he had heard a story that gave him the ba­sic idea for this book. He asks his read­ers for help in ver­i­fy­ing it.


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