Archive for January, 2020

January 21, 2020

#160) Book review: “Bleachers” by John Grisham

“Bleachers” came into my life at the right time. When I first read in a long past October, the month in which it takes place, my mother was on her death bed, just as coach Eddie Rake, one of the central characters in this John Grisham novel, was. In need of some gallows humor, I would, based on medical reports from across the country and the pacing and tone of “Bleachers”, make daily predictions about who would die first, my mother or Coach Rake (as I recall, it was Rake). The book’s other main character, former star quarterback Neely Crenshaw, was approximately the same age as me and like me at a crossroads of is life: mourning for love lost and bridges burned but also hopeful that it wasn’t too late to change.

It was no masterpiece, but it was the story that I needed at the time. After twelve years, a marriage, two family deaths, travels, successes, disappointments and two presidents, would “Bleachers” hold up?

If there is a small town high school sports trope that “Bleachers” misses, I’d be hard pressed to name it. You have the All-American QB and his contentious relationship with his coach; the crazy linebacker who threatens his own teammates with bodily harm when they miss blocks; the nice girl who gets dumped for the hot bimbo; the nutty groundskeeper who’s been there as long as anyone can remember; the player who falls in with the wrong crowd in college and ends up in jail but gets a pass to attend the funeral; the non-fans who resent the resources spent on the football team at the expense of other school activities and old-timers at the coffee shop who reminisce about the glory days. (All this in a mere 163 pages!) Add these familiar elements to a plot that includes a dying coach and a “prodigal son” returning home for redemption and you have a prime set up for parody, intentional or otherwise, at least if the author isn’t careful.

Grisham is careful. He likely knew that handled poorly, the story could easily make people laugh at inopportune times while groaning at moments meant to be inspirational. Maybe as a former high school quarterback himself, he was wary of seeming self-indulgent. Whatever the reason, much of “Bleachers” has  a detached, dispassionate feel, often resembling nonfiction more than fiction. “Bleachers” is full of “facts” about the history of the Rake era (1958-1992) at Messina High: we learn that the 1968 team was not only undefeated but never scored upon; that Neely Crenshaw threw 63 touchdown passes (47 to his favorite target, wide receiver Paul Curry) and that Rake’s teams won 13 state titles. As former players of all ages make their way to Rake Field for the memorial, they are recognized by their fellow Spartans.

“That’s Orley Short,” Paul said, finally putting a name with a face. “Late seventies.”

“I remember him,” Neely said. “Slowest linebacker in history.”

“And the meanest. All-conference, I think. Played one year at a juco then quit to cut timber for the rest of his life.”

“Rake loved the loggers, didn’t he?”

“Didn’t we all? Four loggers on defense and a conference title was automatic.”

With the book’s brevity, Grisham doesn’t give himself much of a chance to develop his characters or create memorable dialogue. None of the characters seem to have memorable individual voices; in some cases, such as the brutish “Silo”, the words are too witty for the man saying them.

Yet that may be the point. “Bleachers” feels like a reunion: rushed and falling short of expectations. If the climatic events of “Bleachers” don’t feel like the payoff we hope for, maybe that’s because that’s how it would be in real life; we have expectations for reunions that we hope will come true even if our rational adult brains know they probably won’t. We know that it’s unrealistic to expect our past story lines to be neatly wrapped up in the course of a busy weekend, but after months of anticipation, it’s hard to let our hopes go. If Neely’s climatic speech leaves us wondering if he really believes what he is saying, maybe his real-life counterparts might act the same way. Unable to find his own closure, he tries to help give the town theirs.

When it’s all over, life returns to how it was; the funeral was a last hurrah, not a turning point in the characters’ lives. The convict goes back to prison; the banker goes back to his bank; the girl goes back to her family in Chicago and the town settles in for another forgettable season of post-Rake Spartans football. As for Neely, there’s a vague feeling that he got the cleansing he sought, although we’re not exactly holding our breath to see what he does next.

In the literary community, the popular opinion of “Bleachers” is that is basically chick lit for readers with “Y” chromosomes, good for little more than allowing ex-football players to relive their glory years. I said it once and I’ll say it again: “Bleachers” is no masterpiece, but despite the fact that in high school I was squarely on the nerd side, not the jock side, it resonated with me both times I read it. Not everyone plays or watches small town high school football, but many of us have had love-hate relationships with authority figures or once-close groups of friends that drift apart. Many of us have kept vigil during someone’s final hours. Many of us have made mistakes in our youth or been victimized by them. Ultimately, Neely Crenshaw and the other current and former Messina residents might not have the gravitas of Romeo and Juliet, the Joad family or even Harry Potter, but I’m not ashamed to say that they have now twice come into my life at the right time.

January 1, 2020

#159) Language court 2020: the D-Theory verdicts on the 45th annual LSSU banished words list

OK, boomers! I literally hope you are living your best lives and none of your friends made you totes jelly at your New Year’s Eve vibe check by posting curated pictures of artisanal cocktails with great mouthfeel, just like the ones they saw on their favorite influencer’s Instagram feed.

As anyone who has read this blog (you have my sympathies) knows, the Lake Superior State Univeristy’s annually released Banished Words List is like my Rose Parade. This year, the process of combing the list and rendering my own verdicts about whether a word or phrase belongs is bittersweet. My father, who recently died following a lengthy battle with Parkinson’s disease, was, among many other things, an incorrigible language curmudgeon (Lord help the poor soul who said “quantum leap” or mixed up “lay” and “lie” within his earshot). Though we never specifically geeked out on these lists together, we would often bemoan how certain phrases would, to paraphrase LSSU, be misused, overused or become generally useless (Dad once suggested that any restaurant or other business that used extra “E”s in its name for effect should have to pay a tax – pony up, Ye Goode Olde Tyme Inne.) So Therefore, I dedicate my verdicts on this year’s list to the memory of my father, Willie Lockeretz, a wonderful man and a relentless grammar douche to the very end.

Quid Pro Pro

Charges: The most nominated word of the year; “Its popularity had the committee wondering what it should offer in exchange for next year’s nominations.”

Verdict: Not guilty. Yes, it has been overused, but the precedent of this court is that mere annoyance isn’t enough for a conviction. In the case of “quid pro pro”, the use has been largely limited to a specific event and correctly used within that context. Therefore, the court finds “quid pro pro” not guilty with the condition that it…wow, look at the time! We’ve got to get moving with this docket.

Artisanal

Charges: Attempting to make something more than it is.

Verdict: Guilty (misdemeanor). The court was tired of this one a long time ago but doesn’t want to waste energy on the appeals that will result from a felony conviction, so misdemeanor it is.

Curated

Charges: Attempting to make something more than it is.

Verdict: Not guilty by double jeopardy. While the court agrees with Barb from Ann Arbor that the word should be saved for the museum, it was included on the 2015 list and found guilty.

Influencer

Charges: “A word Instagram users use to describe themselves to make them feel famous and important when no one really knows or cares who they are.”

Verdict: Not guilty. Remember, the concept itself is not what’s on trial; it’s the word we use to describe the concept and “influencers” do just that. As for self-described influencers, they are usually more laughable than annoying and their career only lasts as long as it takes for them to realize they aren’t influencing anyone. The court leaves it to social media to respond in the careful, nuanced way that it usually does.

Literally

Charges: “One of the few words in English that has begun to serve as its own antonym.”

Verdict: Guilty (misdemeanor).

Living my best life

Charges: “Are there options for ‘multiple lives’?”

Verdict: Guilty (felony). However altruistic the idea may be, the phrase “living your best life” has been rendered meaningless through overuse (cough *influencers* cough.)

Mouthfeel

Charges: “Where else, exactly, would you like to touch your food or beverage?”

Verdict: Guilty (misdemeanor).

Chirp

Charges: “Before we get chirped for being out of touch, why don’t we leave it to the birds?”

Verdict: Not guilty.

Jelly

Charges: “Better left for toast.”

Verdict: Guilty (felony). No, overuse didn’t spike in 2019, but like a “three strikes” convict who is sentenced to life for shoplifting Marbs, its past has caught up with it.

Totes

Charges: Being “totes” overused

Verdict: Totes guilty (felony).

Vibe/vibe check

Charges: “This one just doesn’t vibe with us anymore, unless the speaker is actually vibrating.”

Verdict: G-g-g-g-g-g-guilty (m-m-m-m-isdemeanor).

OK, Boomer

Charges: Self-explanatory.

Verdict: Guilty (suspended sentence). This first-time offender has shown potential in community service, aka reclaimed use by boomers (and the occasional Generation X-er, such as the court). The court will monitor “OK Boomer” in 2020 to see if fulfills its community service by turning itself against millennials and Gen Z – like a parent who realizes that the best way to get your kids to stop smoking pot is to say, “So, gang! What are we going to for 4/20?”

What say you?