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North Florida Lincoln Mercury

Thursday, February 3, 2000

Story last updated at 9:27 p.m. on Wednesday, February 2, 2000

Thriller on the First Coast
Readers will be taking a fictional trip around Jacksonville in the new book from best-selling author John Grisham

By Matt Soergel
Times-Union staff writer

So the national spotlight shifted away from the First Coast when our noble Jaguars were thrashed by that football team in the really ugly uniforms.

Big deal.

Because that spotlight has found its way right back and is currently shining pretty brightly through the cigarette haze at Pete's Bar in Neptune Beach.

That venerable Beaches institution is a big, big factor in The Brethren, the new novel by John Grisham, who's sold a book or two during his career - more than 60 million, in fact, in 29 languages.

And beginning this week, millions more readers no doubt will be traveling, via Grisham's 11th book, to that little corner of almost-paradise where Neptune Beach and Atlantic Beach meet by the ocean.

Much of The Brethren is set at the beach, where Grisham has stayed on several trips to the area with his son's baseball team, which he coaches when he's not writing best-sellers.

He gets a lot of the details right.

Here's an excerpt from the book, which came out Tuesday:

''He had a room at the Sea Turtle Inn, on the beach, and at night he hit the bars along Atlantic Boulevard. He'd found two excellent restaurants, crowded little places with lots of young pretty girls and boys. He'd discovered Pete's Bar and Grill a block away, and for the last two nights he'd staggered from the place, drunk on cold drafts. The Sea Turtle was just around the corner.''

Of course, Grisham has taken some artistic license.

That part about ''the Grill'' after Pete's name, for example? Not in real life: It's a bar, pure and simple.

And the $361 bar tab run up at Pete's by Grisham's lawyer protagonist, Neptune Beach lawyer Trevor Carson?

Not likely.

''We don't run tabs. We don't take credit cards,'' bartender David Stearns said, agreeably enough. ''So he took a little license with that.''

Then there's the matter of Pete's happy hour, which, as Grisham writes, ''began at 5 p.m. and ran until the first fistfight.''

''That's pretty much license too, because we don't have happy hour, or any specials,'' Stearns pointed out. ''And they don't fight in here anymore, not since the drinking age went up to 21.''

That's OK - it's fiction, after all. But Grisham definitely got the overall ambience right, down to the pool tables, the longneck beers and the fact that Pete's is many a local's favorite, ''even though the college kids had discovered the place.''

Stearns, who's been tending bar at Pete's for 17 years - ''I'm one of the new guys'' - said no one at the bar knew anything about being mentioned so prominently in a national best-seller.

''It's kind of flattering,'' he said. ''I think more of our customers are more into drinking than reading, to be honest, though we may have a few readers. I'm sure it'll be a hot topic of discussions.''

Folks at the Sea Turtle Inn also were flattered by the mention.

''I think it's absolutely fabulous,'' sales manager Julie Gaston said. ''I think it certainly would be great publicity for the Sea Turtle.''

Gaston said that Grisham always stays at the inn when he comes to town and is not a ''high maintenance'' guest with lots of finicky requests.

''He's one of the nicest men I've ever met,'' she said. ''So down to earth.''

The Brethren is about three former judges stuck in a minimum-security federal prison called Trumble, a fictional place that would seem to be somewhere in rural Nassau County (Grisham writes that it's ''north past the airport and deep into the flat Florida countryside'').

Unchallenged by daily prison life, the judges run a mail scam with help from their lawyer, Trevor Carson, a not terribly notable graduate of Florida State University's law school.

Prone to partaking of liquid lunches at Pete's, his home away from home, he runs a sleepy law business behind a ''creaking and peeling door'' in a former summer rental in Neptune Beach.

Then the judges' scam catches the wrong person, a powerful person. And soon Neptune Beach and Atlantic Beach are overrun by some shadowy operatives with a keen interest in the no-account lawyer.

Grisham became familiar with Jacksonville and the Beaches during three trips to the area with his son's baseball team, Little Leaguers from Charlottesville, Va.

Grisham, a graduate of Mississippi State University, wanted to take his team to Florida during spring break. So MSU's athletic director arranged a trip to the fields at Bishop Kenny High School, whose baseball coach, Bob West, had once been an assistant coach at MSU.

Grisham, a baseball fanatic, struck up a friendship with West. That friendship has grown into a strong one marked by annual visits and frequent phone calls.

Grisham even sent West, who's also athletic director at Bishop Kenny, an advance copy of The Brethren. It was the first of Grisham's novels that West has read. ''We don't talk too much about books,'' said West. ''I guess that's why we get along so well.''

Grisham stayed at the Sea Turtle Inn in Atlantic Beach during his visits and made a few visits to Pete's Bar and local restaurants while he was there, West said.

The author told him that his next book was going to be set at the beach, but West didn't quite believe it until he read it.

''He obviously likes this area, and I'm sure Pete's Bar is going to sell some T-shirts out of this. I know he joked about the setting, the old beach bar - the pool tables, people drinking longnecks, smoking cigars. That's just the kind of guy he is. I could see him going in there, shooting a game of pool and leaving without anyone knowing who he is.''

It could have happened, said Stearns, the ''new'' bartender at Pete's: ''I wouldn't know him if I saw him. I probably served him a drink or two.''

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