“Sooley”, by John Grisham (Doubleday)
When you’ve written 35 novels and working on a 43 consecutive New York Times # 1 bestselling series, you can write whatever you want. This is probably the easiest way to explain why John Grisham’s latest is a basketball story and doesn’t feature a single audience scene.
This isn’t Grisham’s first sportsbook, of course, but it’s the first set in the awe-inspiring world of college hoops. Samuel Sooleymon, nicknamed Sooley, is a 17-year-old who plays on clay courts in his native South Sudan when we first meet him. Growing like a weed and with an infectious passion for the game, he is soon in Orlando to play in a team of traveling Sudanese stars, showcasing his skills for college coaches.
The joy of a Grisham novel is turning the pages as the plot propels you, so I’ll avoid revealing too much. Suffice it to say, “Sooley” follows Grisham’s familiar playbook – short chapters, lots of foreshadowing, and quick prose that’s easy to read and hard to write down.
Grisham seems to enjoy the moonlight as a sports writer. There are entire paragraphs that read like recaps of the AP game: “Central pulled off a 14-0 run and led 15 at the half … Sooley caught 11 rebounds, for his first double-double.” bench but playing 29 minutes, scored 31 and blocked four shots. He likes to put words in the mouth of the fictional coach Sooley, who tells his team before their very first NCAA tournament game, “Men, we don’t deserve respect. Again. Respect is over there on the floor, just waiting for us to go get it. If they can pass the casting, it will make an action-packed sports movie.
More difficult to recreate in a film adaptation will be the novel’s subplot, which focuses on the family Sooley leaves in Sudan. When a rebel group burns down their village, they join millions of refugees fleeing the country, eventually finding food and shelter in a Ugandan camp. They are never far from Sooley’s mind as his basketball career takes off in America and the juxtaposition of his fame and fame with the plight of his family at home is central to the story. .
One problem that probably won’t bother many other readers: in a work of fiction set in a fact world – these are all real schools, but with made-up players – Grisham sometimes confuses the two. When the Sooley, North Carolina Central varsity team qualifies for March Madness, Grisham offends all fans at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County by writing, “Never in tournament history has a no. 16 only beat a No.1. Maybe it’s just coincidence that UMBC upset Grisham’s favorite team, ranked No.1 Virginia, in 2018, or maybe the author have fun ignoring this fact in his fictional universe?
Either way, it’s not too bad to say that Sooley’s team are making Grisham world history and their dream season continues. Pages turn even faster after that, reaching a climax that won’t leave readers in doubt that this is a John Grisham novel.