Book Notes: Calico Joe

16 Jun

Calico Joe has got to be the most recently published book I’ve written about on this site. Which is fantastic! Considering I’m trying to pen fiction in this modern literary climate, it might be considered advisable to sample things from the last few years or so. It may be the best way to notice trends in the fiction world. The alternative to studying modern fiction is just to take USA Today at its word and start selling erotica considering the “50 shades” of porn  series are at the top of their selling list.

Calico Joe is a first person narrative with two separate time-lines: one during the protagonist’s past and one set in his present reality. Of course, something that complicated can only be handled so brilliantly by famous wordsmith John Grisham.  In a surprising move, the story isn’t filled with the legal jargon that usually defines his works (and that  I, as a government and world affairs major, find interesting) but with something notably outside the bounds of the courtroom: baseball statistics. However, I never felt inundated with averages and numbers; the presence of these tidbits actually added to the overall credibility of the novel. That being said, while nothing happened in a traditional legal format, this story definitely contains characters tried and hung in the court of public opinion.

The plot follows the incredible rise of fictional rookie Joe “Calico Joe” Castle and his tragic fall due to a near-lethal bean-ball while also analyzing the execrable actions of rival pitcher Warren Tracey. The story is narrated from Tracey’s son, Paul, as he struggled to come to grips with the hellish reality that his abusive father  has imposed upon his family. This incredibly believable nightmare includes abuse, alcoholism, infidelity, and intentionally hurling the career-ending pitch at Calico Joe’s skull. Warren Tracey is ostracized by the nation for his inexcusable actions. Paul Tracey goes through life afraid of revealing his last name. Paul decides, as he grew older,  that someone has to rectify the wrong. He goes to his now cancer-stricken father and blackmails him into apologizing to the now handicapped Joe Castle.

What makes this an interesting story to me is that it wasn’t incredibly serious. There wasn’t some earth-shattering revelation, nor was there any fighting for a greater societal cause. Everything about this book was entirely personal. The diction was simple and conversational- like a child. Not an uneducated one, mind you, but  a child who has seen and known more about the world than any other should. This wasn’t the world’s story, this was Paul Tracey’s. Through the spitting of statistics and the reiteration of his childhood memories he became an incredibly believable entity.

Books like this are necessary for aspiring fiction writers to study, especially those who are going to try their hands at first-person narratives. It teaches us about more than just what constitutes good writing, but what constitutes excellent character development. The biggest mistake that most novels in this format make is assuming that the character is fully actualized. You’re writing from the first person, after all. As such, you’re either writing it as a journal/ diary entry or with the benefit of hindsight. Why wouldn’t you know everything that’s going to happen? Plus you, the author, usually knows where the story will end up before you ever put pen to paper. The character is already full developed to you and you subsequently write as such.

I’m just as guilty. My first novel The Lupine Institute (an unpublished work that will never see the light of day) was inherently flawed due to the same mistake. I wrote as the character and he was fully matured from the get. We have avoid spoiling our readers with the full picture in the beginning if we’re penning a traditional, linear narrative. If we don’t we’re doing them a disservice. Character development is just as crucial in creating a lasting story as plot and word choice. While this practice of prolonged development will always be a challenge for authors, Calico Joe is a great model for us as we strive for believability and literary merit.

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