When a war hero loses his way
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.