John Gilstrap Essay - Critical Essays

Gilstrap, John


John Gilstrap Nathan's Run

Born c. 1957, Gilstrap is an American novelist.

Drawing on experience from his volunteer work with troubled children, Gilstrap's debut novel, Nathan's Run (1996), explores the theme of real children subjected to an often brutal penal system with little consideration of their crimes as defensive reactions to unbearable situations. The owner of an environmental consulting firm, Gilstrap outlined Nathan's Run during a 1994 business trip to Montana. The story begins as Nathan, orphaned at the age of 12 and placed in the custody of an abusive uncle, steals a car to escape. Captured and sentenced to a juvenile detention center, Nathan is further abused by other inmates as well as the adults in charge. When a guard attempts to stab him, Nathan kills the guard and flees, taking shelter in the home of a vacationing family. While there, he turns on the radio and learns that he is the target of a nationwide hunt. He calls the radio station to give his side of the story and finds support in a charismatic radio talk-show personality known as "The Bitch," who engenders sympathy for him among her listeners. As Nathan runs—"borrowing" cars and empty homes (though always cleaning up and leaving a note of apology), and evading the police, a self-serving prosecutor, and a mob hit man—he continues to call in to The Bitch with updates, and his flight becomes a real-life soap opera for listeners. Critical response to Nathan's Run has generally been favorable, with commentators praising its fast pace, likeable protagonist, and thrilling conclusion. Detractors, however, argue that the novel copies John Grisham's The Client (1993), and fault its characters as generic, lacking personality and psychological depth.


Thomas Gaughan (review date 15 December 1995)

SOURCE: A review of Nathan's Run, in Booklist, Vol. 92, No. 8, December 15, 1995, pp. 667-68.

[In the following review, Gaughan offers a mixed assessment of Nathan's Run, finding the characters shallow.]

Nathan Bailey's life is a Dickensian tragedy updated for the 1990s. At age 11, his father dies in a car accident, leaving him orphaned and at the mercy of abusive, alcoholic, ne'er-do-well Uncle Mark. To escape further beatings, Nathan steals Mark's car and is sentenced to a juvenile-detention center, where he is promptly gang-raped. When a drunken guard attempts to kill him, Nathan manages to kill the guard and escape. Stealing cars and hiding in the suburban homes of vacationing families, Nathan learns that he's the talk of talk radio, and as the boy hunt escalates, he begins an on-the-air dialogue with The Bitch, a nationally syndicated talk-show star. The body count rises as a sadistic hitman also stalks Nathan, and only The Bitch and a local cop believe that Nathan may be a victim instead of a stone killer. This novel isn't literature, and the author isn't a new Dickens. Nathan seems too sweet and polite to be a believable 12-year-old, especially one so brutalized. Other characters, notably the callous juvey warden and the DA who thinks the death penalty for Nathan is his ticket to the U.S. Senate, are the flimsiest of cardboard constructions. That said, the book has an engaging, plucky hero and a breakneck pace, and it is likely to become both a smash best-seller and a big-budget film. Libraries should prepare for a Grisham-like run on Nathan's Run.

Kirkus Reviews (review date 15 December 1995)

SOURCE: A review of Nathan's Run, in Kirkus Reviews, Vol. LXIII, No. 24, December 15, 1995, p. 1718.

[In the following review, the critic describes the ending of Nathan's Run as "predictable but undeniably pulse-pounding."]

[In Nathan's Run] a preteen locked in a juvenile detention facility for car theft kills a supervisor, breaks out, and leads the police on a chase from Virginia to Pennsylvania.

At least that's what it looks like—though actually Nathan Bailey is as innocent as the next 12-year-old. He stole the car only to get away from his uncle Mark, the hated guardian who's secretly after his inheritance; he killed the supervisor only in self-defense; and he's being pursued not only by the red-faced police but by a contract killer as well. Nathan doesn't know about the contract killer, but he blurts out the rest of his story at the first opportunity to Denise Carpenter, the self-styled "Bitch" of NewsTalk 990, during her phone-in radio program, and the audience, cueing the gentle reader, goes bananas (eventually, calls run 3 to 1 in his support). Gone to ground in a vacationing family's home, the slight, blond, resourceful Nathan—an obvious role model for most of the 12-year-olds you know—sweeps up the glass he broke getting in, washes the linens, and leaves an apologetic note for the surprised homeowners. (A second note to a different family remarks in passing that he's taken their handgun.) Meanwhile, county cop Warren Michaels and his good-cop friends sweat to bring Nathan in before damn-the-First-Amendment county prosecutor J. Daniel Petrelli or well-connected hit-man Lyle Pointer can pin down his location and blow him away. First-timer Gilstrap doesn't clutter this scenario with any unnecessary physical descriptions, psychological background, or moral complexity; like a roller-coaster, the story races along on well-oiled wheels to an utterly predictable but undeniably pulse-pounding conclusion.

Publisher's Weekly (review date 18 December 1995)

SOURCE: A review of Nathan's Run, in Publisher's Weekly, Vol. 242, No. 51, December 18, 1995, p. 39.

[Below, the critic offers a favorable review of Nathan's Run, calling the book a "brilliantly calculated debut."]

Gilstrap is a first-novelist, but you wouldn't know it from his brilliantly calculated debut. With the skill of a veteran pulp master, he weaves a library's worth of melodramatic clichés into a yarn that demands to be read in one sitting. Eponymous Nathan isn't any old 12-year-old; he's a kid, shades of Dickens, who was unjustly thrown into a juvenile detention center and raped his first night there. Now the boy's on the lam, having escaped the center after killing a guard who for some mysterious reason tried to stab him to death. Crying for Nathan's blood are an ambitious politician and vengeful cops, as well as a sadistic mob hit man who aims to finish what the guard botched. Luckily for the boy, the cop in charge of bringing him in is a kindly sort who recently lost a son who looked much like Nathan. Readers should find much of this familiar—even Nathan's calls to a radio host as he runs are old news (a similar ploy was used in the 1971 film Vanishing Point). Still, as the plucky kid fights against increasingly desperate odds, Gilstrap mixes sentiment and suspense with a wizard's touch, ensuring that Nathan's most satisfying run likely will be right up the bestseller lists.

Erna Chamberlain (review date 1 February 1996)

SOURCE: A review of Nathan's Run, in Library Journal, Vol. 121, No. 2, February 1, 1996, p. 97.

[In the following review, Chamberlain remarks favorably on Nathan's Run.]

Nathan Bailey, a 12-year-old boy incarcerated in a juvenile detention center on spurious charges, escapes after murdering a guard who attempted to stab him to death. A chase ensues, and along the way we are introduced to an ambitious prosecutor, some vengeful cops, a mob hit man trying to finish what the guard started, and other assorted bad guys. On the side of the young escapee is an empathetic police lieutenant who recently lost a son of the same age who bore a strong resemblance to Nathan. A charismatic shock-radio talk show hostess plays a pivotal role in influencing public opinion as well as providing a forum for Nathan's side of events. As the chase continues, the reader is forced to consider how one views the doling out of punishment, as well as judging the validity of outside influences on the rightness or wrongness of the commission of a violent crime. Gilstrap's debut work gallops along at breakneck speed to an ending that is guaranteed to evoke a strong emotional response in the reader.

Drew Limsky (review date 29 February 1996)

SOURCE: "The Copycat Crime," in Washington Post, February 29, 1996, p. B2.

[Limsky is a novelist, poet, educator, and critic. In the following review, he describes Nathan's Run as derivative of John Grisham's The Client.]

Few writers would envy the prose of John Grisham, marvel at the elegant ease of his language or aspire to the complexity of his characterizations, but there are no doubt hundreds of nascent pulp scribes hot to mimic the staggering commercial success of the lawyer turned bestselling author. John Gilstrap is one. Nathan's Run is just the kind of novel Grisham writes—in fact, he's already written it: The Client.


(The entire section is 641 words.)

Pam Lambert (essay date 4 March 1996)

SOURCE: "Punctuation and Pretzels," in People Weekly, Vol. 45, No. 9, March 4, 1996, p. 41.

[In the following essay, Lambert describes how Nathan's Run earned publication.]

An exclamation point almost kept John Gilstrap from getting published. New York City agent Molly Friedrich was about to become the 28th to reject Gilstrap's manuscript, then called Nathan!, in her case without reading it because of the offending punctuation. ("It apparently screams, 'Amateur!,'" the author explains.) But Friedrich's assistant Sheri Holman noticed Gilstrap was a fellow William & Mary grad and read further. The result: a heart-pounding tale of suspense—rechristened...

(The entire section is 333 words.)

Bobbie Hess (review date 19 April 1996)

SOURCE: "This Boy's Life Is No Fun on the Run," in Chicago Tribune, April 19, 1996, p. 3.

[Below, Hess praises Gilstrap's protagonist as "one of the most likable characters in recent fiction: an honest yet resourceful kid."]

This emotionally charged thriller is one of the year's best.

Until he was 10, Nathan Bailey had an almost perfect life. Although his mother died when he was an infant, he was adored by his prosperous father. But when a train crashes into his father's car, Nathan's life becomes a living hell. The court awards custody of Nathan to an uncle, who beats the boy. At 11, Nathan decides to run away, steals his uncle's car, is caught and...

(The entire section is 420 words.)

Further Reading


Harris, Mark. "Write, Camera, Action." Entertainment Weekly 314 (16 February 1996): 54-5.

Remarks on the film potential of Nathan's Run.

(The entire section is 18 words.)