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From Sarajevo to Belgrade to Thessaloniki: Constructive Criticism for John Grisham

July 20, 2010

Let’s go back in time a little, to July 5th. On this day, I caught a train from Sarajevo to Belgrade. My companion in the compartment was the young Swedish woman who had caught the same bus from Split and who shared a cab to the Sarajevo hostel. She gave me bread and cream cheese, and a sip of some local liquor she’d bought from the “restaurant car,” which was actually a car empty of everything but stale cigarette smoke and two bored old men behind a counter. Anyway, I didn’t want her judging me for reading John Grisham (he was popular in Europe, too), so I explained to her how I’d been forced to pick this from a very limited selection, and then I got right down to reading, and I have something to say about it.

I am reading (and thankfully, nearly finished with) The Last Juror. A recent college grad and Yankee moves down south and finds himself the editor of a small town paper. Shit hits the fan when a young woman in the town is brutally raped and murdered. Courtroom drama ensues, newspapers are sold. This is all well and good, but for the RAPE APOLOGY AND VICTIM BLAMING THAT SUBTLY UNDERPINS THE WHOLE DANG PLOT (because if not for her behavior, she would be alive today, and the small town paper would not have sold so many copies and blossomed into a thriving little publication, and then we’d have no story, boo hoo).

You see, around about Chapter 2, when Rhoda is murdered, Grisham starts talking about how she was once a “model widow” who never went out much, never drank or socialized late, but she grew “restless,” and “the jeans got tighter, the dancing faster, the hours later,” and this is the behavior that caused the novel’s villain to follow her home from the bar and rape and kill her.

This is victim blaming AND lazy writing: the pretty young woman hanging out in seedy bars at the state line meets a bad end; the rapist is angry at having been rebuffed and follows her home (in his pickup, swilling Jack Daniels, of course), and commits the crime.

Other cliches: northern college boy is confused in rural South; suspicious, uneducated locals abound; there is a clan of wild, dangerous, lawbreaking Hillbilly Mafia characters; everyone has a limp, or an eye patch, or a plate in their head, or a mental disorder, or several ex wives, or failing all that, is just a drunk or eccentric. No one is a real character operating according to any subtle or deeply rooted motives. Work on this, John Grisham, please and thank you.

Anyway. Over the course of the train ride, my compartment-mate asked to buy the book I’d brought from home (for 1,000 Serbian dinara and 10 Bosnian marks), because she and I had bonded over our interest in modern-day work, and what it is, and how absurd it is, and why we do it, and what we would all do if we didn’t have to do it; the book I’d brought was The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, and I will re-buy it when I get home, and I recommend it if you’re weirdly interested in this subject. I was sorry to part with that book but glad to pass it to someone who would truly enjoy it.

It was a 9 hour ride to Belgrade. When we arrived, I was interested in the station’s general state of shabbiness and disrepair. International train station! Capital city! These conjure images of brightly lit platforms, long and wide and tiled in white, drowning in fluorescent lights; of big bright modern signage written in several languages; maybe some potted plants or hanging baskets. But no, there were weeds growing up between the tracks, and stray dogs skulking up and down the platforms and even through the inside of the station. Had my train not been pulling in to this station, I would have thought, “now there’s a seedy place I should avoid.”

I got to Belgrade at around 8:30 pm. The train to Thessaloniki was set to leave at 9:50 but didn’t leave the station til 10 past 10. I did not leave this train until abut 4 pm the next day. I slept a bit on this train overnight, even though I wasn’t sure if it was weird or otherwise inadvisable for me to be on a Serbian night train by myself, but nothing untoward happened. A man who shared the compartment for a few hours woke me from a nap to give me a lozenge, either because he was concerned or annoyed by my cough.

We stopped at the Greek border for nigh unto an hour, and the police took my passport (along with others) and told me to come claim it from them in the station after 5 or 10 minutes. It turned into 20 or 25 minutes. I passed the time debating what I would do if, hypothetically, the train were to start leaving before I’d gotten my passport back–jump on the train with all my belongings, or get stranded at the border with my passport.

I made it to Thessaloniki, where I spent a few hours riding buses to the ends of their lines in the wrong direction, futilely trying to find the regional bus station. The bus system really was mystifying. I could discern no method for determining which buses were going in which direction. I gave up and got a cheap hotel room, and in the morning, feeling recovered from my 30+ hr train journey from Sarajevo, I caught the regional bus to Igoumenitsa and then a ferry to Corfu.

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