The Boys from Biloxi
© 2022 John Grisham
Keith Rudy and Hugh Malco were among the best of friends, who grew up playing ball and exploring the Gulf Coast together. Third-generation immigrants, they both admired their fathers intensely – both men who had grown up in humble circumstances, gone to war, and then come back to create lives for themselves in entertainment and the law. But as Lance Malco’s investments in clubs grew into a sprawling criminal enterprise with the police in its pocket, fueled by booze, hookers, and gambling, it created a string of violence that provoked Keith’s father Jesse into running for district attorney – a choice that would pit the fathers, and then the sons, directly against one another in a story of heroism and tragedy. The Boys from Biloxi is not quite a return to form for Grisham, but its mix of seedy crime and the drama of friends torn apart by their diverging dreams makes it more compelling than anything Grisham has written in the last ten years.
Although I devoured Grisham’s books in the 1990s and early 2000s, most of what he’s written since 2009’s The Appeal has proven a disappointment, with lazy writing and uninteresting characters. The Boys from Biloxi still suffers from that, with Grisham doing a lot of telling-and-not-showing, but at least two of his core characters are interesting, and the relationship drama between the four gives them additional strength. Friends who are like brothers turning against one another as their fathers pursue different paths makes for a stirring story, especially after Keith’s father Jesse makes serious progress against the Dixie Mafia that Lance Malco heads and Hugh decides to strike back on his father’s behalf. The blue-collar crime setting (an array of clubs that serve as gambling halls, illegal bars, whorehouses, and general dens of iniquity) adds appeal, as does the historical appearance of Hurricane Camille that makes part of the story possible. Frankly, reading about financial fraud is boring compared to rumrunners, strip joints, and erstwhile Klansmen wandering about with plastic explosives.
The Boys from Biloxi was a welcome surprise, both for the attraction of its story and its relative ambition, as it pushes towards being a generational/family epic without growing too large. The lurid historical setting also helped!