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Grisham’s ‘Sooley’ scores an intriguing novel about hoops, Third World realities

Professional book critics usually squirm uncomfortably in their reviews when author John Grisham gets out of the more familiar mold of legal thrillers with unexpected plot twists or more gothic looks at a South that is evolving on questions of race, equality or social justice.

His novellas that center on sports often engender particular angst in that crowd. But as one who has followed Grisham’s remarkable career since “A Time to Kill” was published in 1989, the truth is that in many ways, I enjoy those nuanced, often-surprising paeans to sports more than the legal thrillers that are the sturdy foundation of the literary House That Grisham Built.

Grisham, the former Mississippi lawyer/legislator who once dreamed of a career as a college and professional baseball player, has famously written about sports before.

In 2003, Grisham’s novella “Bleachers” explored the complicated relationship between high school football and small towns — and between loyal and courageous players and driven, demanding coaches. The character Neely Crenshaw — the faded, jaded Messina High Spartans quarterback — is one of Grisham’s most ambivalent literary creations.

In 2004, Grisham’s screenplay for the film “Mickey” was produced and released as a vehicle starring Harry Connick Jr. The screenplay examined integrity vs. the “win-at-all-costs” mentality of sports against the backdrop of the Little League World Series. Grisham would say he gained inspiration for his writing from his experiences as a Little League coach.

In 2007, Grisham’s novel “Playing for Pizza” was released. The book recounted failed NFL quarterback Rick Dockery’s journey of self-discovery after being drummed out of the NFL and forced to “play for pizza” in the Italian Football League.

“Calico Joe” is my favorite of the Grisham sports novellas. It is the fictional story of Joe Castle’s childhood in real-life Calico Rock, Arkansas, and of his storybook journey from the minor leagues to dominating the majors in 1973 as a 21-year-old rookie first baseman for the Chicago Cubs.

For anyone who has played baseball from Little League to the majors, the book strikes that tuning fork deep in the chest of those who looked into the sun to catch a fly ball, who faced an opportunity to win the game facing a 3-2 count in the bottom of the 9th against a stud reliever, or who even briefly contemplated stealing home.

I felt that tuning fork during Mississippi State’s recent baseball series against Ole Miss — during games that ended in victory and defeat. Sports offers such a thrilling ride on that rollercoaster.

Grisham’s “Sooley” is South Sudan phenom Samuel Sooleymon, for whom basketball was a ticket out of his war-torn country and an exciting new life in America replete with first college and then professional basketball adulation.

All that against the backdrop of the dangers Sooley’s family faces in Africa as rebel troops attack his village, leaving his father a casualty and his sister missing. Those harsh realities bring new focus to what will transpire for Sooley’s mother and two brothers as the civil war intensifies there.

Will Sooley’s basketball success punch the tickets of his family to leave the South Sudan war zone? Can Sooley avoid the pitfalls of quick money and intense fame? What about the coaches, agents, camp followers, users and manipulators that trail talented athletes?

The book touches many themes – the competition for NCAA talent that is now global in scope, fame and hero worship, the complex price of fame, the disposability of athletes when their abilities can no longer serve college or professional organizations, and how athletic talents can lift the most desperate souls out of poverty and other dire circumstances – or not.

Like “Calico Joe,” “Sooley” (Doubleday, $28.95, 368 pages) is a cautionary tale with several paths to redemption or heartbreak. Like all Grisham tales, the latter chapters will get you sunburned at the beach or yawning at work from lack of sleep. It’s an excellent read.

Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at sidsalter@sidsalter.com.