John Grisham is one of the world's most popular writers. Since 1989, when his first novel, A TIME TO KILL, was published, Grisham has written a bestselling book each year. 2006 saw the release of his first work of nonfiction, THE INNOCENT MAN, and he continued his streak of bestsellers.
Two years ago, while traveling through Italy, I observed large displays of IL BROKER, the Italian language version of the broker. That novel's popularity in Italy was the result of its setting in Bologna and Grisham's thorough narration and depiction of Italian life and culture. By his own admission Grisham loves all things Italian, and he has returned to that venue for his latest work of fiction, PLAYING FOR PIZZA.
However, fans should not expect the typical Grisham legal courtroom thriller when they open its pages. In recent years, the author has sought to expand his works beyond the crime and law genre for which he first gained fame. In 2003, readers learned of his infatuation with football when he presented them with BLEACHERS, which paid tribute to high school football. In PLAYING FOR PIZZA, it is the world of "professional" football that draws his attention. But this is professional football played not in huge stadiums on national television; rather, it is Football Americano played in a country that is the hotbed of soccer, the game known as "football" everywhere but in North America.
Before Grisham can introduce readers to Football Americano, they must first meet Rick Dockery, a journeyman professional quarterback playing for the Cleveland Browns. As a third-string quarterback, Dockery's major contribution to his team is holding a clipboard and signaling plays from the sidelines. But in the conference championship game, the two players ahead of Dockery on the depth chart are injured, and he enters the game with the Browns 11 minutes away from victory and a trip to the Super Bowl. The Browns lead the game 17-0, and all Rick needs to do is to run plays that avoid disaster. But disaster finds him, and three pass interceptions and a concussion later, the Browns have been defeated by the Denver Broncos.
Rick awakens the next day in a hospital with little memory of the game. He soon learns that he has joined a short list that all athletes seek to avoid --- he will forever be mentioned by sports announcers on national television as a miserable failure. To add insult to Rick's injury and ignominy, his agent advises him that the Browns have released him.
For a man who has played for eight professional teams in six years, being dropped is not an unusual experience. But Rick's flop in front of America makes most NFL teams wary of offering him a contract. His faithful agent finds a team that desperately needs his services: the Parma Panthers, who play in a league of Italian footballers where each squad may have three Americans on the roster. The level of play does not even rise to that of Division I college football. But it is football nonetheless.
The rest of the novel is part football, part travelogue and part change of life for a spoiled professional athlete who comes to learn that there is more to life than touchdown passes. Grisham loves Italy, and his depiction of the country, the culture and the denizens of that nation are endearing and enjoyable. Having recently traveled to Italy and partaken of some of the same cultural experiences as Rick (I also enjoyed the opera without understanding one word), PLAYING FOR PIZZA rekindles wonderful memories of a country and a people easy to love.
Grisham aficionados understand that his novels are not weighty tomes imparting heavy messages. They are enjoyable reading and, in the case of PLAYING FOR PIZZA, lighthearted portrayals of characters learning simple lessons about life and sports. Nowadays it seems that football, wherever it is played, has become a national passion. For both Rick Dockery and John Grisham, it is a vehicle for a feel-good story that reminds us that life itself may be the most important game we play.
Reviewed by Stuart Shiffman on January 18, 2011
Playing for Pizza