Distinct features of Grisham’s novels are intrigues, struggle for justice and tough moral dilemmas for his characters. This kind of plot usually does not leave space for humour. Rather, it could be even detrimental to the main idea of it, distracting the reader’s attention and diluting suspense with unnecessary components. There is one of Grisham’s short stories though, that accommodates both suspense and humour: Quiet Heaven.
The very title is sarcastic, as it is the name of a nursing home where old people spend their last years, usually in deteriorating mental and physical health. The story is narrated by a sophisticated crook, who discovered the way to profit from other people’s misery. His previous job was at Heaven’s Gate, a similar final station for a human life. So, both in Heaven’s Gate and in Quiet Heaven, his experience was almost the same.
In the past, a few great authors wrote stories about the life in institutions where people, whose only expectation was death, found the last refuge. The best two novellas, which come to my mind, are Sanatorium by Somerset Maugham, and Heaven Has No Favourites by Eric Maria Remarque. There are certainly some others, but it is a matter of personal preference to consider only these worth mentioning.
Under the surface of an intriguing plot, both stories reveal the sad and merciless truth about human destiny. John Grisham however, had overcome the natural impulse for funeral mood and grim philosophy, which such places inflict on us. Instead, he adopted a sarcastic and humorous tone, which still did not obscure the serious thoughts of the author, but at the same time made the story fun to read.
Gilbert Griffin, a professional crook, applies for a job in Quiet Heaven, and is hired right away, as it is hard to find someone willing to accept a minimum wage for the most dirty and ungrateful work at night shifts. He does not mind, as his earnings will eventually amount to tens of thousands, or even hundred thousands dollars. It comes therefore as no surprise that his narration is coloured with cynicism, controversy and humour. After all, he deals with the nursing home staff, some of which don’t care about their patients. Actually, they are the targets in his schema. He will document their negligence, sloppy job and often cruelty, and take his finding to the court unless the management is willing to settle for a huge reward. Another trick is to rip the patients off with the help of a sleazy lawyer, if such opportunity exists.
His first target in Quiet Heaven was Lyle, an eighty-four years old man, whose obsession with women in his younger years progressed into mental disorder. Here is what one of the stuff members, a black lady in the kitchen, tells to Gilbert about him.
“Lawd have mercy, son. That’s the dirtiest ol’ man in the world. Can’t keep his hands off any woman, no matter how old. He’s grabbed nurses, patients, attendants, ladies from the churches who come in to sing Christmas songs. They used to lock ‘im up during visitation, else he’d chasin’ the girls from the families. Came in here one time, lookin’ around. I picked up a butcher’s knife and waved it at him. Aint’t had no problem since.”
“But he’s eighty-four years old.”
“He’s slowed a little. Diabetes. Cut off a foot. But he’s still got both his hands, and he’ll grab any woman. Not me, mind you, but the nurses stay away from him.”
Gilbert rents an apartment in a house belonging to a former madam, whose name is Ruby. As he soon discovers, she does not abandon her business. On the first Friday night of his stay, the life in the apartment above him is raging on, depriving him from sleep.
“An hour later, the clicking is back, and the bed is once again hopping across the floor. The hero this time must be either bigger or rougher because the noise was louder. She, whoever she is, is more vocal than before, and for a long and impressive while I listen with great curiosity and a growing eroticism as these two abandon all inhibitions and go at it regardless of who might be listening. They practically shout when it was over, and I’m tempted to applaud. They grow still. So do I. Sleep returns.”
Some philosophical ponderings of the crook are amusing. “In retiring homes, birthdays are a big deal, and for obvious reasons. You’d better celebrate ‘em while you can.” And then, after a short description of festivity, he remarks: “Each birthday might be the last, but I guess that’s true for all of us. Truer for some, though.”
And here is an excerpt about the Lyle’s birthday party:
“…At one point Wilma Dell gets too close to Lyle, who, off his saltpeter, makes an awkward and obvious grab for her ample ass. He gets a handful. She yelps in horror, and almost everyone laughs as though it’s just part of the celebration, but it’s obvious to me that Queen Wilma is not amused. …. Wilma disappears and is not seen for the rest of the day. I doubt that she’s had that much fun for years.”
It is a pleasure to read how Gilbert, devoid of any moral principles, discusses morality issues with madam Rudy. The topic of their conversation is a star prostitute, who works for Rudy.
“A nice girl,” I say, mindlessly.
“She started working for me when she dropped out of high school. Terrible family. Couple of bad marriages after that. Never had a break. I just wish I could keep her busier. It’s so hard these days. Women are so loose they don’t charge for it anymore.”
Miss Ruby, a career and unrepentant madam, is bemoaning the fact that modern women are too loose. I think about it for a second, then take a sip and let it pass.”
Wonderful! A brothel owner laments about low morality of our times! Indeed, who else will defend it?