John Grisham’s Bleachers is about former high school quarterback, Neely Crenshaw and his return to the town of Messina, where high school football reigns supreme. With Neely’s return, he has to confront the ups and downs of his glory days and come to terms with the fact that they are long behind him. With Neely’s return come small reunions and floods of memories with friends, former football players, fellow townsfolk and classmates, as well as his coach, Eddie Rake, who is on his last legs of a cancer diagnosis. In the 3 days spent in Messina, Neely learns a lot about what he’s missed in the past 15 years, how things changed, yet also stayed the same and through it all, he wrestles with his love and hatred for Coach Rake.
I found this book to be quite an easy read, as I got through it in a day. (Something I rarely do.) Definitely a slow burn and you have to have at least some sort of interest in football to get through it. I enjoyed it on a very simple level. The main character, Neely Crenshaw, seemed kind of flat to me with very minimal development or likability. The real stars are the characters he runs into along the way, like Paul Curry, Nat Sawyer and Silo Mooney, and the stories they tell about the life they’ve made for themselves in a town they weren’t able to escape so easily, like Neely did.
The heart of this story is their coach, Eddie Rake, who is the life of their small town but also involved in a lot of its controversy. Everyone has their own feelings about Coach Rake. Some have evolved over time, while others carry grudges for many years but, the impact this guy had on his players is parallel to that of Coach Eric Taylor from the TV show, Friday Night Lights.
This story didn’t resonate for me like it did for others I know but, if you have ever been involved with football on any level, this story is heavy on things that a casual fan wouldn’t know but a player would. The story refers to players of this high school team as a part of a fraternity and that makes a lot of sense. Not being part of that fraternity, some of the moments that pack a big punch didn’t quite land with me.
Despite Neely being the main character, he is more of a vessel that allows for the stories shared. The supporting cast is really who bring this book to life with their tales of how Messina has carried on since Neely left. Some of my favorites were: Paul Curry, the sensible and all-knowing wide receiver turned banker; Silo Mooney, the defensive beast who now runs a body shop dabbling in legal and illegal business; and Nat Sawyer, the scrawny former player who is Messina’s resident LGBT representation.
There are two things this book really drives home. 1) How small towns can let their entire lives be regulated by high school sports (again, not dissimilar to Friday Night Lights) and 2) That there’s a indescribable bond between coaches and players. Coaches methods might not always be the right way and players may hate them for it, but those memories stick with you no matter how hard you try to forget them.