Story and structure

Note: this post is going to thoroughly spoil John Grisham’s latest novel, The Reckoning. If you intend to read the book, stop reading now!

Like millions of other people, I am a John Grisham fan. When I saw that his newest novel, The Reckoning, was coming out, I put it on my library holds list — and was number 437 in line. Fortunately for me, the county library system bought 250 copies of the book, so my wait was relatively short. It’s a compelling story and it kept me turning pages, and as I read I noticed that the structure of the novel was integral to its appeal. Grisham doesn’t tell the story straight through. There are multiple time-jumps within the novel that work both to keep us guessing about the plot, and to majorly serve the cause of his character development.

If you were to put the story of The Reckoning in strict chronological order, it would look something like this:

  1. It is 1925. Pete Banning, a West Point graduate, meets Liza, a debutante. They hit it off and elope after Liza falls pregnant. The Bannings get stationed in Germany which allows them to hide the date of their son Joel’s birth. Joel is soon followed by a daughter, Stella. Liza suffers several miscarriages and then a long infertility, leading her to assume that she is barren.
  2. It’s the 1930s. Pete inherits the family cotton farm and moves his family there. He remains in the Army reserve and is called up to fight in the Pacific in 1939.
  3. 1942: Pete is part of the Bataan Death March after U. S. forces surrender in the Philippines. He is reported missing, presumed dead to the Banning family (Liza and the children, and Pete’s sister, Florry). However, he survives. Pete spends some time as a POW and then escapes to fight the Japanese as a guerilla until the end of the war.
  4. Meanwhile, Liza has begun an affair with Jupe, a black farmhand who works on the Banning farm. She becomes pregnant by him, and gets an abortion in Memphis with the help of the Methodist pastor, Dexter Bell.
  5. 1945: Pete is rescued in the Philippines. After his return home, he becomes suspicious of Liza because she refuses sexual relations with him, citing a lingering infection after a miscarriage she had just after he shipped out. Pete knows that she wasn’t pregnant by him at that time because an injured back (on his side) prevented relations for a month or two before he left. He confronts her; she panics and names Dexter Bell as the father, in part to save Jupe from the lynching that would follow if their history was known.
  6. Pete commits Liza to the state mental institution. He shoots Dexter Bell, is tried, found guilty, and executed by the state. The night before his execution, he tells Florry he shot Dexter Bell because of Liza’s infidelity. Florry keeps mum.
  7. The Banning family is met by a wrongful death suit on behalf of Dexter Bell’s family.
  8. Liza escapes from the state mental hospital, confesses to Florry that Jupe was the father of her child, and commits suicide on Pete’s grave. Florry keeps mum.
  9. After various legal machinations, Joel and Stella lose the family farm.
  10. Florry has moved to New Orleans. Joel and Stella visit her on her deathbed, where she confesses the truth about Pete and Liza.
  11. Everything is tragic. The end.

Told straight, it’s a pretty depressing read and in some ways not especially interesting. (I will grant that it’s depressing either way.) But Grisham doesn’t tell it straight: the book begins with Item 6 above, the shooting of Dexter Bell. We know that Pete kills him but we don’t know why — in fact, nobody knows why, as Pete’s only (frequently repeated) comment is that he has nothing to say. Right before he’s shot, Dexter asks Pete if it’s “about Liza”. The question that keeps us reading is not what happened, but why.

From Item 6, we then pass to Item 7: Joel and Stella trying to deal with their father’s death and the threatened loss of their land. We still don’t know why Pete shot Dexter. Immediately after this, the story jumps back in time to Items 1-3 and we learn about Pete and Liza’s courtship, and his service in the war. Then we jump forwards in time again to Liza’s escape from the mental hospital and her suicide (8),  the loss of the family farm (9), and Florry’s deathbed confession (10, leading to 4 and 5). Then the book ends (11).

So instead of ordering the plot as 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10-11, Grisham gives it us as 6-7-1-2-3-8-9-10-4-5-11. It’s a masterful piece of story-craft that heightens the tragedy of the whole thing, especially since Grisham keeps violating our expectations about which characters are the ones we should be rooting for. At the beginning, we watch Pete shoot Dexter, but we don’t know him or necessarily like him. It’s only after his execution that Grisham shows us who Pete Banning is: his strengths and weaknesses, his grueling war experience, his loyalty to Liza and his brothers in arms, his incredible instinct to survive. Pete becomes a highly sympathetic character, all the more so because we know his end.

As a counter-example, we have Jackie Bell, Dexter’s young widow. We have immediate sympathy for Jackie: her husband was murdered at his desk, her children are suddenly fatherless. But our sympathies dry up as Jackie takes up with a greasy lawyer, sues the Banning estate, and wins the Banning farm and generational homestead. Should she get those things? Maybe so — maybe that is exactly a just recompense for the loss of her husband — but we don’t think so anymore, because Grisham has already taught us to like Pete, even though he has done her immeasurable wrong.

Then, of course, at the end we find out that Pete killed the wrong man; Dexter may have been guilty of helping Liza to facilitate a secrte abortion, but he certainly never slept with her. Liza commits suicide not because of her guilt over the affair with Jupe — remember, she was convinced that Pete had been killed in the Philippines — but because her naming Dexter as the father led to the death of an innocent man. Grisham is constantly overturning our understanding of the story and its characters as the plot gets fleshed out bit-by-bit.

As to the Jupe-vs-Dexter dilemma, I only noticed after I got to the end that Grisham had been hinting as to the real story all along the way. Various things make it obvious that Pete’s motive has to do with Liza and almost certainly has to do with her (real/perceived) sexual misconduct. We are prepared to accept that it was Dexter — it looks in many ways as if it was Dexter — but in a way it also looks too obvious. In retrospect, we can see the ways that Grisham tells us throughout the novel that Jupe, and not Dexter, was the real third party in the Banning marriage:

  1. Before Pete’s trial, a grand jury is convened to determine whether charges should be brought in several criminal cases, including Pete’s. There is a brief discussion of a case where a white man was caught in flagrante delicto with a black woman. A short interlude details Mississippi’s anti-miscegenation laws, noting that the law was much less concerned with the pairing of white men and black women than it was with white women and black men.
  2. Jupe serves as the farm’s driver as often drives for Florry, who doesn’t have a license. It is later mentioned in passing that Liza “hated to drive” as much or even more than Florry.
  3. Jupe disappears from the farm, sent north to Chicago by his grandparents. (We find out that he and Liza were spotted parked on one of their drives.)

On their own, none of these details add up to much — but when you put them together, they add up. Hearing that Liza was pregnant by Jupe surprises us, but only briefly, until the pattern rearranges itself in our minds and becomes obvious. The Reckoning is a tremendously good piece of storytelling, and I appreciate it all the more for having picked it apart a little.