Doubleday, 2007, 262 pages, C$26.95hc, ISBN 978-0-385-52500-8
Something very strange happens to best-selling authors once it becomes clear that they can write anything and still get it published. In some cases, their editors become powerless to stop them from ranting about their wacky pet theories, and the result is a body of work that becomes crazier and more insular as it goes on. John Grisham’s case is a bit more complicated, as he’s been taking more and more chances writing outside the type of novel that have made his reputation. Skipping Christmas was a first attempt, and Playing for Pizza is just as complete a departure from Grisham’s legal-thriller roots. It’s an Italian travelogue like The Broker, except without the serious thriller angle. And while it’s one of the least consequential pieces that Grisham ever wrote, it’s still as enjoyable to read as anything else from him… even though you may not remember much of it a day later.
The premise is a joke in itself, as a football player wakes up to find that he’s just fumbled a crucial game in the most enraging way possible. Unable to find a job anywhere in North America after his very public humiliation, he accepts one of his agent’s most desperate suggestion and leaves for Italy, where he ends up on a quasi-amateur football team while waiting for the storm to settle back home. Once settled in Parma, however, our protagonist comes to enjoy the scenery, make friends, settle scores with a mean American sports journalist (by punching him in the face, as football jocks are wont to do in settling their issues with impunity) and rediscover himself. He also –spoiler- wins a few games along the way.
If you’re looking for more plot, grab another Grisham book. There isn’t much more here to Playing for Pizza than detailed description of la dolce vita as our protagonist plays tourist, then becomes an apprentice-citizen in Parma. The football games are always followed by pizza among friends, and it’s this kind of relaxed atmosphere that ends up being the novel’s main preoccupation. If you’re a North American having traveled to Europe, this kind of narrative will feel intensely familiar. Strange customs! Language issues! Non-American lifestyles! No parking anywhere! Influent friends fixing problems with the law! (For the dark side of this charmingly corrupt Italian lifestyle, read Douglas Preston’s more harrowing experience in The Monster of Florence.) It’s a novel where you sit back and enjoy, and maybe make a note to head for the closest Italian restaurant in order to enjoy some of the food lusciously described every few pages.
It often reads a lot like The Broker, a previous novel in which the author used his holidays as an excuse to set a novel in Italy. This time, however, Grisham has dispensed entirely with the burden of suspense and just freed himself to write about food, tourism, football and romance, with a tone that’s all smiles. It’s likely to appeal to a number of possible readers, but is it enough?
Part of the problem with Playing for Pizza is that the protagonist isn’t much of anything. A failed football player who finds that it’s better to be a big fish in a small bowl; who gets the girl for no other reason that he’s the hero of the novel; who punches people in the face when they displease him and gets away with it. You can see how that kind of character appeals to a strong streak of wish-fulfillment, but the danger of such indulgences is that they can reach a narrow public and feel obnoxious to anyone who doesn’t identify with it. This limits the novel’s appeal and contributes to its inconsequentiality: It’s not a hard novel to read, but try to remember something from it more than a few hours later and you’re liable to picture Northern Italy, food, small cars and maybe a few football scenes.
This, obviously, is what Grisham intended, and a chunk of the novel’s charm is seeing the author indulge himself in a bit of meaningless fun. Not everything has to be about southern lawyers tempted by corruption, or even about serious plot mechanics. If Grisham is willing to use his bestselling credentials to write this kind of book –turning holiday memories in another crop of royalties–, then who are we to begrudge him his fun? At least he’s not jumping on a soapbox and telling us about a shape-shifting lizard conspiracy threatening the world.