John Grisham’s new novel “Sooley” is, oddly, about statistics.
Sudanese basketball phenom Samuel “Sooley” Sooleymon’s half year of hoops at North Central Carolina University is filled with his record-breaking numbers in scoring, rebounding, assists and blocked shots. In contrast to his amazing statistics are the gut-wrenching number of deaths, beatings and rapes occurring in the country he left behind.
This dichotomy between the soaring success of the 18-year-old refugee, Sooley, and the unbearable circumstances of his family back in the homeland runs through the core of Grisham’s book. Even the author’s voice is affected by this verbal split screen approach.
Sooley’s almost incredulous metamorphosis in one year from a skinny 6-foot-3-inch player on the dirt courts of his village into a 6-foot-8-inch, 230-pound NCAA star and first round NBA draft prospect is penned by Grisham in a near young adult fiction mode. Readers of a certain age are likely to equate Sooley and North Carolina Central University’s sudden rise with the also fictional Jimmy Chitwood and his Hickory High School team in the 1986 movie “Hoosiers.” Older baby boomers may even recall the Chip Hilton series of young adult books in the 1950s by Long Island University’s legendary basketball coach Claire Bee. As a young boy Grisham devoured this series.
Grisham has written seven young adult books in his Theodore Boone series and the author is an avowed sports fan so he seems the perfect scribe for the basketball potions of “Sooley.” His on the court scenes are filled, perhaps overfilled, with the hero’s almost mythical plays; three-pointers from near mid court, soaring dunks, behind the back assists and spectacular blocked shots on defense.
Contrasting this there is nothing young adult fiction about Grisham’s description of the grim realities faced by Sooley’s family in the small village of Lotta in Sudan, a country with decades long strife. Sooley’s father, mother, sister and two younger brothers’ relatively quiet, humble lives are shattered when the village comes under attack by rebel guerrilla fighters.
The author uses an almost reportorial style to paint the ugly picture of a country which has seen over 400,000 murders and 4,000,000 displaced people forced from their homes since another civil war erupted in 2013. The surviving members of the Sooleymon family trek for days to find a refugee encampment, their only hope for survival. Grisham manages to tout the work of several nongovernmental organizations such as the Doctors Without Borders working in the chaos of this region. The family struggle is a strong portion of the first third of “Sooley.” This appears intentional on Grisham’s part, an effort to bring awareness of this tragedy to a wider audience.
Strangely though, once North Carolina Central, and Sooley, start their ascension in the college basketball world the Sudanese issues retreat to the background and are sparsely visited in the latter portions of the book.
“Sooley” is Grisham’s 42nd novel, a majority of which were highly successful legal stories often topping the bestseller list. When it comes to numbers of books sold Grisham’s statistics are world class.
This novel, where Grisham shifts from the courtroom to the basketball court, also attained the coveted no. 1 New York Times bestseller list slot. The novel manages to take dark and uplifting turns as it races to a conclusion and Sooley himself becomes a statistic.
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