By John Grisham
Doubleday. 420 pp. $29.95
Reviewed by Neely Tucker
In his new novel, John Grisham returns to the mythical town of Clanton, Miss., the setting of his career-launching novel A Time to Kill, published 30 years ago. He's revisited this racially divided community several times — in The Last Juror, Sycamore Row, and the short story collection Ford County.
The Reckoning is set in 1946, when World War II hero Pete Banning returns home a changed man, packing his wife off to an insane asylum and shooting the town's popular Methodist minister, refusing to explain either action. Against this backdrop, Grisham continues the rich literary tradition of Southern authors confronting a culture of white supremacy and its offspring: corruption, violence, and a general cultural miasma.
For American authors in general, and Southern ones in particular, Mississippi often functions as the nation's heart of racial darkness. It's regarded as "the most Southern place on earth" not because of its manners, moonlight, or magnolias, but because of its malignant heart. "Northerners, provincials that they are, regard the South as one large Mississippi," the historian V.O. Key Jr. once wrote. "Southerners, with their eye for distinction, place Mississippi in a class by itself."
The state's white ruling class created this reputation by shaping itself into a minority-rule terrorist regime after the Civil War, the shadows of which it still has not escaped. (I say this as a seventh-generation white Mississippian whose ancestors include at least one slave owner, a handful of hill-country rednecks, and a Confederate soldier who lost a leg at Gettysburg.)
Writers such as Richard Wright, William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, and Tennessee Williams founded the state's outsize literary reputation, largely by writing about the quirks and horrors of Southern culture, most principally its racism. The state's dazzling constellation of current writers — Jesmyn Ward, Natasha Trethewey, Donna Tartt, Richard Ford, Ellen Gilchrist, Greg Iles, Angie Thomas, Michael Farris Smith, and so on — deal with the race question in ways small or large, in one genre or another, for to ignore race in Mississippi is to write about Arizona and ignore the desert.
The effect these writers have had on American letters is hard to overstate. Mississippians — born in one of the poorest, least-educated states in America — have won one poet laureateship of the United States, nine Pulitzer Prizes for literature or theater, six National Book Awards, two Presidential Medals of Freedom, and the Nobel Prize in literature.
Grisham was born in Arkansas but grew up mostly in north Mississippi, where he was a lawyer and state legislator. He lived a couple of miles from Faulkner's house in Oxford before decamping, as did Faulkner, to spend most of his time around Charlottesville, Va. (Full disclosure: I wrote a short profile of Grisham in the early '90s that he was not fond of.)
Grisham's forte, of course, is the legal thriller, not thick-cut literary Southern Gothic, but he has often drawn on the state's racist framework for plot and character development. It was center stage in A Time to Kill, for example, and essential to Sycamore Row. In Reckoning, racial tensions subtly define the narrative.
After Banning shoots the minister, gives himself up to arrest, and yet refuses to explain himself, the town begins to suspect there might not be enough mental cotton in his gin.
"This family needs a full-time lawyer," says Joel, his college-age son, and you just know a Grishamesque attorney is coming to the rescue.
That doesn't quite happen, although there are a couple of trials that bookend a segment of Pete's harrowing war experiences. As the why-he-dunnit unwinds, the plot wades into a tangle of white and black family relationships, coming to rest in moral waters as muddy as the river that gives the place its name.