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Tom Chaney: No. R735. John Grisham - creative imagination

Tom Chaney, Of Writers and Their Books. R735, John Grisham and the creative imagination, first appeared in the Hart County News-Herald on 5 November 2006
The next earlier Tom Chaney Of Writers and Their Books column, Tom Chaney: R733: On the Other Side of Oddville

By Tom Chaney

John Grisham and the creative imagination

John Grisham's nineteenth book is just out. It is a new departure for this writer of legal thrillers. The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town (Doubleday, 2006) is the story of Ron Williamson -- accused, tried, and sentenced to death for the murder of Debra Sue Carter in Ada, Oklahoma -- found innocent after eleven years on death row.

The Innocent Man has all the virtues of Grisham's other work -- well developed characters, an exciting plot with unexpected twists and surprises lurking in and out of courtrooms and jail cells. This time the story is rooted in fact, constrained by people and events outside of the author's imagination. But, like the fiction from Grisham's pen, it involves the search for what is true within the human experience.

Ron Williamson, small town Oklahoma high school baseball star, is chosen by the Oakland A's in the draft of 1971. His dreams of major league stardom turn to ash. Defeated by injury, alcohol, and drugs six years later he is back in Ada showing the first signs of mental illness.

Ron cannot keep a job; moves in with his mother, and sleeps twenty hours a day on her couch.

When Ada cocktail waitress Debra Sue Carter, 21, is raped and murdered in 1982 the local police cannot find the killer. Five years later, unable to solve the crime and with scant justification, the cops arrest Ron and his friend, Dennis Fritz.

Although there is no physical evidence, the pair are convicted with faulty science and the word of snitches in jail who are obviously seeking their own ends.

Fritz is sentenced to life in prison and Williamson is sent to death row where his mental condition continues to deteriorate. Appeals in the state courts are exhausted despite appellate admissions of trial irregularities.

Only when the staff of a federal judge see merit in a habeas corpus appeal, does a careful reexamination of the conviction occur. Judge Frank Seay finally overturns the Oklahoma courts and orders a new trial. His ruling contains these words, "God help us, if ever in this great country we turn our heads while people who have not had fair trials are executed. That almost happened in this case."

Although Ron Williamson was exonerated at a new trial and freed, his story has no happy ending. His mental condition was worsened in part by his eleven years in prison. His physical condition deteriorated to the point that cirrhosis of the liver led to his death at 51 in 1999.

John Grisham first came across this story in a New York Times obituary two days after Williamson's death. Within a few hours, he tells us in the end notes to the book, he realized that he had a rich and layered book on his hands.Grisham's departure from fiction is justified by a cracking good tale. It is one that will cause serious rethinking of the idea of American justice and the death penalty -- no matter of one's position on the latter.

To one concerned with putting books on their proper shelves, Grisham's venture into non-fiction gives rise to an interesting series of questions. I have often thought that the line between the writing of fiction and of history was a murky blur.

A writer cannot recreate the past whether that past be the battle of Gettysburg or a recent Oklahoma murder. The past is beyond recapture. The historian can only muck about in the tracks it leaves -- much as did the man with the shovel and barrow behind the horses at the walking horse shows we watched at the local fairs of our youth. Some historians are good at the process, others not so good. But all deal only with the remains left by the living, breathing horse of reality.

The poet or novelist comes at the same past - the same horse, if you will - from a different perspective. He shifts the same muck about creating his own truth from the detritus left behind. Notice that I said "truth," not "Truth," for we are all like the blind men trying to describe the elephant -- which is at once a wall, a rope, a tree -- depending upon the part of the elephant we are grasping.

And these stories define our reality - helping us give shape to the chaos of the world we confront. No matter the source of his tales, John Grisham always gets us a little closer to that ever elusive shape.

Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at
Box 73/111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749
Email: Tom Chaney
The Bookstore

This story was posted on 2011-11-07 04:09:05
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