John Grisham’s latest book The Boys From Biloxi, took me on a stroll down Memory Lane. Set in the 1950s and 1960s on the Mississippi Coast, the novel features authentic locations, most destroyed by Hurricane Camille in 1969 or Hurricane Katrina in 2005. In the plot, boyhood friends follow separate ways of life — one takes over the Dixie Mafia and the other becomes Mississippi’s Attorney General, determined to “clean up the Coast” and avenge his father’s murder.
After reading two of Grisham’s newer novels realistically set in the Florida Panhandle, I eagerly preordered The Boys From Biloxi in hopes of adding it to the Biloxi section of my book, A Literary Travelers Guide to the Gulf South. I expected the best of Grisham since he is a native Mississippian who knows the Coast, the landscape and seascape, and its history. I didn’t, however, expect to relive so many memories while reading it.
The “bad guys” in Grisham’s book gather at Baricev’s, a local seafood restaurant popular with politicians and mobsters as well as locals and tourists. I loved Baricev’s. My favorite dish was their marvelous, marinated crab claws. The beach restaurant was rebuilt after Camille but eventually succumbed to the casinos and abandoned its location featuring great views of the Mississippi Sound. The site became home to the Biloxi Belle Casino.
I recognized some of the shady places in Grisham’s book too. I once went into one of the strip clubs he describes. I remember the bar and the strippers but didn’t notice the backroom action of the novel. I probably was in a state of shock that a date had actually taken me to a strip club!
While many of the locations are beer joints and dives, the exclusive and posh Broadwater Beach Hotel he mentions had a famous marina bar (Mrs. Brown’s) that served knock-you-off-the-bar-stool Daily Doubles accompanied with a great view, if you could keep your eyeballs in focus. Just reading the recipe is inebriating!
I also remember a trip to Ship Island, the site of the Civil War Fort Massachusetts. My Girl Scout Troop’s ride on the ferry to spend the day on Ship Island resulted in munching on too much homemade peanut butter candy and the worst sunburn I’ve ever had. In the novel, the boyhood friends take their own small boat, travel the twelve miles to Ship Island, and camp out before going their separate ways. They didn’t have peanut butter candy.
Grisham describes other famous landmarks like the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer (only a historic marker remains today) and the picturesque St. Michael Catholic Church, which still stands at Point Cadet, the section of Biloxi where Grisham’s main characters, all immigrant families, live.
The Boys From Biloxi includes several references to Grisham’s favorite Coast restaurant, Mary Mahoney’s Old French House, which has weathered all the storms and serves great food in a fine dining atmosphere. In 1967, I enjoyed dining there, after waiting for a table sitting in the bar with my date. The steak was wonderful and I married that date.
Some of the book’s action takes place in Pascagoula, where I grew up. Grisham describes a Pascagoula “hotel” I can’t place. Pascagoula was more of a motel and boarding house town in the 1950s and 60s. The Jackson County Courthouse, where one mobster goes to trial, is memorable as I spent plenty of hours there as the daughter of a deputy sheriff. And of course, I always considered the courthouse glamorous since my mother saw Charlton Heston, Bruce Bennett, and Robert Stack there on a whirlwind movie star tour in December 1951. The soon-to-be-famous actors spoke from the Jackson County Courthouse steps to a throng of adoring movie goers!
I also find it interesting that Grisham portrays Jackson County residents as scornful and judgmental of the neighboring counties for operating strip joints and gambling backrooms and serving illegal booze. I sure knew plenty of Jackson Countians who loved to go to Biloxi — and it wasn’t to shop. Our politicians weren’t that squeaky clean either in the 1950s and 60s.
I appreciate John Grisham taking me down memory lane, but I wish it would have been a quicker trip! The book, billed as a thriller, was more of a snooze-fest. The closing chapter, once I finally trudged through the 454 pages, lacks resolution because the protagonist and antagonist never really face off. If I hadn’t been reviewing it for this blog, I would have shelved it. But it sure was fun remembering sitting at Mrs. Brown’s marina bar, watching the sun set, and drinking a daily double.