Grisham’s Homily

Why an airport-bookstore-thriller writer is actually America’s leading moralist.

The Street Lawyer
By John Grisham
Doubleday; 348 pages; $27.95

It has never been hard to understand the appeal of Stephen King. His is the fiction of the American subconscious: id-lit. Tom Clancy is just as easy. He stands at the vital intersection of military documentary and Popular Mechanics. Only John Grisham, the third in the troika of leading airport-bookstore brand names, remains mysterious. What does he represent? Nominally, his genre is legal fiction. But true legal fiction–the work of, say, Scott Turow–organizes itself around the courtroom, and Grisham’s courtroom scenes are lackluster. He seems more comfortable with the before and after–with the back and forth of white-shoe lawyers who never leave the office–than with showdowns for the judge and jury. Had Grisham written The Caine Mutiny, Capt. Queeg would have settled.

Nor is Grisham particularly good at the kinds of things you expect from a decent thriller writer. Compared to, say, David Baldacci (Absolute Power) or Joseph Finder (TheZero Hour), his plotting is pedestrian. When it comes to character, he can do hard-working, naive, up-from-the-middle-class associates in their late 20s. He can do brilliant, crusty octogenarian senior partners. And he can do public-interest lawyers with Jewish last names. But that’s about it. Grisham’s protagonists tend to be more memorable in the movie versions of his novels than in the novels themselves, which is remarkable considering that the movie versions aren’t terribly memorable to begin with.

So why is Grisham so successful? The answer, I think, is that his books proceed from a perspective radically different from that of his competitors. Most legal fiction begins with the criminal and derives the law: It’s what enters at the end, deus ex machinalike, to separate the heroes from the villains. Grisham, by contrast, begins with the law and derives the criminal. In Grisham’s universe, it is not the felonious mind that shapes the legal world. It is the legal world and its attendant institutions that shape the felonious mind. (Of course, lots of other people see the world this way too. It’s just that they tend to be political-science professors, not thriller writers.)

Grisham’s achievement is to use this inverted narrative to create a sense of purpose in his novels–to make them seem consequential. The Chamber, for instance, was a wonderful novel. But it was also an incisive and brilliant argument against the death penalty. The Runaway Jury, Grisham’s penultimate book, was an intelligent and compelling indictment of the tobacco industry that, because it was sold in the fiction aisle, probably reached a thousand times more people than every other tobacco-industry indictment combined. To reread Grisham–in particular, recent Grisham–is to be struck by how completely he is devoting his celebrity to the articulation of a passionate and decidedly unfashionable liberalism. This has never been more true, though, than in Grisham’s new book. In The Street Lawyer, Grisham sheds whatever lingering attachments he may have had to the frivolity of his genre and emerges as a moralist–a skilled and worthy practitioner of the largely forgotten art of socially redeeming fiction.

T he Street Lawyer is the tale, in the first person, of Michael Brock, a young, naive, up-from-the-middle-class associate at a large, faceless corporate law firm in Washington, D.C. Brock is on track to make partner when a homeless man carrying a gun takes him hostage in the firm’s plush conference room. He escapes, but the incident jars him. He begins a period of soul-searching. He quits his job. He leaves his cold careerist wife. He moves out of tony Georgetown and into an apartment in the bad part of town. He joins a tiny public-interest group representing the poor and downtrodden. He begins to investigate why the homeless man was so angry at Brock’s former law firm and uncovers–as have many Grisham protagonists before him–a dirty little secret that his firm has tried to cover up.

The book has a lean, linear feel to it. Things happen to Brock, and he does not stop to ask why. He becomes involved with a woman, a fellow activist, but she appears only fleetingly. (“She lifted the blanket and tucked herself next to me,” Grisham writes, in the book’s sole romantic moment: “I held her firmly; if not she would’ve fallen onto the porch. She was easy to hold.”) The moment when Brock decides to leave his high-paying job to help the poor comes as he sits at his desk comparing himself to Mordecai Green, the public-interest lawyer whose legal clinic he is about to join. This may be the most abbreviated epiphany in modern literature:

I helped my clients swallow up competitors so they could add more zeros to the bottom line, and for this I would become rich. He helped his clients eat and find a warm bed.

I looked at the scratchings on my legal pad–the earnings and the years and the path to wealth–and I was saddened by them. Such blatant and unashamed greed.

The phone startled me.

Grisham, it is clear, wants nothing to stand in the way of his central point–that a man who surrenders all his worldly possessions to defend the homeless is a hero. To have Brock agonize, to have him spend the bulk of the book desperately weighing the pros and cons of his decision, would be to have him act as people normally act in novels. And The Street Lawyer isn’t a novel, exactly. It’s a homily.

It is hard to understand how Grisham pulls this off. His books aren’t being sold exclusively to residents of Manhattan’s Upper West Side. He is preaching to the kinds of middle Americans that liberal activists long ago gave up for dead. But he manages to present politically unpalatable ideas with grace and understatement. The Street Lawyer avoids the kind of self-righteousness that usually accompanies homeless activism. Grisham is content with the simple and compelling observation that as a society we fail to treat the homeless with the dignity they deserve.

At one point, early in the book, an entire family of five whom Brock had befriended dies on a bitter winter night, after being turfed out of their apartment. He visits their bodies in the morgue, pulling back the sheet: “I closed my eyes,” Brock says, “and said a short prayer, one of mercy and forgiveness. Don’t let it happen again, the Lord said to me.” That moment–that prayer–sounds like a cliché. But a cliché is something said over and over again. And these are things that, in this day and age, are rarely said at all.