John Gilstrap Criticism - Essay

Thomas Gaughan (review date 15 December 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.


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Pam Lambert (essay date 4 March 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 Nathan's Run, about a 12-year-old murder suspect trying to elude the heat and a hit man—that has already earned more than a million dollars in book and film rights.

"I'd like to have fallen through the floor," says Gilstrap, 39, who lives in Woodbridge, Va., with wife Joy, an insurance-claim rep, their 9-year-old son Chris and black Lab Joe. "We dreamt that if we got $25,000 out of this we'd be able to finish the basement and put something away for Chris's education, and we'd call that a success."

So far the only signs of his windfall are a large stash of Gilstrap's favorite cinnamon-and-sugar pretzels and the fact that he now spends most of his time working on a new novel rather than for the environmental-consulting firm he owns. But his company played a key role in his success. During a 1994 trip to Montana, Gilstrap found himself making the 16-hour drive between two clients several times—with no radio reception. "I had nothing to do but think," he says. "I had the novel outlined within a few days."

Though Gilstrap isn't writing the Nathan script, he admits to some mental casting. "I think The Bitch [a radio shock jock] would be nicely played by Whoopi Goldberg. And for [cop] Warren Michaels, Harrison Ford would be great." But, Gilstrap adds, "it's hard for me to separate who I'd like to see in it and who I'd like to meet."

Bobbie Hess (review date 19 April 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)