John Grisham Does It Gay!

I had received (received, taken, stolen) an advance reading copy of John Grisham's first story collection, Ford County, from work because I was on a short story high. That's what college creative writing class will do to you. It will make you appreciate the short fiction from, indulge in, like it even more because heck—you're being forced to write it. I went out to buy all of the short story collections I could afford, which basically mounted to two books by Raymond Carver (should've saved up for the collected version from Library of America), Anthony Doerr's The Shell Collector, and The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, because Lydia Davis rules! I got the Grisham book for free. Not expecting much, I tossed it aside for later. Hey, maybe I can get it signed and wait till he dies. He is a popular author. Why should I care about his literary methodology or his observation of human nature.

It was not until I heard that the last story in the collection, “Funny Boy,” was about a gay man who comes home to die...of AIDS of course (stereotypical, trite, but we'll get to the good parts later). Being a gay writer and all that jazz, being a bookseller who sees titles with Grisham on it flying off the shelves, being a person who had an advance copy of this story, I had to read it. Especially because it came from a popular author. A popular author tackling gay issues. A popular southern writer tackling gay issues (his southern flag never shown through his legal thrillers though). Again, I had to read it. I uncovered my paperback version of Ford County, turned to page 265, and read the story Grisham said it took two weeks to write, the story he said he knew had to be at the end of the collection.

“Funny Boy” tells the story of Adrian Keane, who comes home from San Francisco at the age of 31 to Clanton, Mississippi. There, even before he arrives, rumors surface about the once rich son. They say he's come back sick. He's come back with the gay disease. He's come back to Clanton to die. He has AIDS. Rumors prove true and his family, a once rich clan, but now only living off the scrapings of the dead patriarch, immediately throw him out of their own home, leaving him to live in one of their properties on the other side of the track, Lowtown, to be taken care of a spinster, Emporia. She is promised the property after Adrian dies. And his death is a constant reminder throughout the story, and Grisham's narrator makes it clear that this will how it end. However, this does not distract from the story. What is at the heart of the story is the constant tension between the town and Adrian, and as the story progresses (but then again stories don't usually de-progress, you kinda have to be a special writer to do that...), between the town and the elderly caretaker.

While it could use some editing (it's a habit from creative writing), the highlight of story is that Grisham does paint sympathetic characters. Sympathetic gay characters. That's a lot from a straight person born in Mississippi (but later I found out he was a Democrat State House Representative and I think I like him more) .Adrian becomes a person that is not just gay, but a person that is attacked just because he is a “funny boy.” Grisham  creates the type of prejudice that gays face onto a piece of paper and does so in a way that can possibly make people understand. (Oddly, this will be published in the shadow of the passage of the Matthew Shepard Act). Additionally, his writing is naturalistic, it flows, it creates a place, that while fictional is real and concrete.

Grisham's “Funny Boy” is a surprise from a writer of thriller, a genre that has always stood in my mind as weak and for dumb people (crack of the literary world, I'd say). But he proves to be more than a James Patterson, a writer of dopey mysteries. Grisham's work here is literary (the short form is almost always literary) and he proves himself a adept writer. The sad part is that some readers will read this and never accept it for its quality (i.e.  there are not shoot-off scene, how sad), but as is the case with “Funny Boy,” he brings a tale of social paranoia, a tale of friendship, a tale of tolerance to people who may have never thought about it. Above all, it is a beautifully written tale. And that of course is enough for me to buy the final published version (released November 3) and give the thriller genre another chance, or at least give John Grisham another chance.

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