By John Grisham. Doubleday. 368 pp. $27.95
John Grisham's name is so familiar to so many millions for slam-bang novels about crooked lawyers that it's easy to assume he's been around forever. He hasn't. His first novel, A Time to Kill, was published in 1989, and his first bestseller, The Firm, appeared in 1991. In the 14 years since, he has published an astonishing 16 more books, The Broker being the latest, with total sales running into the unimaginable millions.
All of which has permitted Grisham to live comfortably at his residences in Mississippi and Virginia, to support various undertakings that engage his interest and sympathy, and to write, as the "Poetic License" that hangs in my office puts it, "anything he jolly well pleases." It also has earned him the predictable scorn of the literati, who despise nothing so much as "good, solid, commercial fiction" (Grisham's description of what he writes) and the authors who make handsome livings from it. No doubt you will recall the stink that arose in 2003 when the National Book Foundation bestowed its Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters upon Stephen King, whose zillions of bestselling novels often are to be found side-by-side with Grisham's in train stations and airports, and the stink last year when the same medal went to Judy Blume, the author of wildly popular books for younger readers. Imagine the indignation spewing out of Greenwich Village and the Upper West Side if they gave the medal to Grisham!
Relax. They probably won't. Grisham, who gives the impression of being modest and unpretentious, probably won't lose any sleep over it, either. He'll cry all the way to the bank.
Literary awards mean much less than most people think -- they tend to reveal a lot more about those who give them than those who receive them -- and literary reputation doesn't mean much either, influenced as it so heavily is by the scribblers of academic and journalistic ephemera, yours truly included. A few writers of what is still pigeonholed as "genre" fiction have attained a measure of critical respect -- Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Elmore Leonard et al. -- but it is handed out in a grudging and/or slumming sort of way. The prevailing assumption among the literati is still, and doubtless always will be, that popularity equals mediocrity.
The assumption is entirely invalid, since it requires us to dismiss out of hand the immensely popular and notably distinguished work of Graham Greene, Charles Dickens, Eudora Welty, William Styron and Anne Tyler, to name five who come immediately to mind. Does Grisham rank with these in literary as well as marketplace terms? Of course not, and he might well be the first to agree. But he is exceptionally good at what he does -- indeed, right now in this country, nobody does it better -- and his books can be read with pleasure and amusement by people who expect more from escapist fiction than assembly-line plots, characters and prose. If there are certain formulaic aspects to his books, those books are also smart, imaginative and funny, populated by complex, interesting people, written by a man who is driven not merely by the desire to entertain but also by genuine (if understated) outrage at human cupidity and venality. His bleak, mordant view of American business and commercial culture is not unlike Theodore Dreiser's; he hasn't Dreiser's depth of social and moral acuity, but he's a better storyteller and a better writer.
Grisham is at once a moralist and a humorist, an idealist and a cynic. His first novel, which he insists to this day is the one he cares most about, tells the story of a black man caught in an eddy of racism, yet in The Runaway Jury (1996) one can almost sense the glee with which he puts these words into one character's mouth: "We have worked for this moment. It'll work because all the players are corrupt. You're corrupt. Your clients are corrupt. My partner and I are corrupt. Corrupt but smart. We pollute the system in such a way that we cannot be detected."
Variations on that theme play over and over again in Grisham's fiction. Himself a lawyer, he is attuned to all the tricks played by "greedy lawyers," tricks that in more or less equal measure he admires for their ingenuity and deplores for their dishonesty. In The Firm, a respectable Memphis law firm turns out to be a front for the Mafia, laundering money all around the world and silently acquiescing in murder while enriching the partners who conspire in the cover-up. In The Runaway Jury, Big Tobacco conspires to rig juries in cases arising from smoking-related illness and/or death, but is out-smarted by a couple of anti-smokers who engineer their own mini-conspiracy. In The King of Torts (2003), huge pharmaceutical companies that knowingly peddle dangerous drugs are flayed by class-action suits organized by opportunistic class-action lawyers who conspire to win staggering punitive judgments.
Et cetera. Now, in The Broker (Doubleday, $27.95), Grisham gives us a Washington lawyer/lobbyist named Joel Backman: "He loved wine and women and sports cars. He had a jet, a yacht, a place in Vail, all of which he'd been quite eager to talk about. The bold [magazine] caption above his head read: THE BROKER -- IS THIS THE SECOND MOST POWERFUL MAN IN WASHINGTON?" That was years ago, before Backman got his hands on computer software that could gain access to and control over a sophisticated satellite surveillance system launched secretly by another country. Rather than turn the software over to the Pentagon or the CIA, he proposed to sell it to the highest bidder: the Israelis, the Saudis, the Chinese, the Russians. Whoever came up with the most money. Then the feds got wind of it, and in short order Backman found himself in solitary at federal prison, serving a 20-year term, "broke, disbarred, disgraced." He was, in the minds of most, a traitor.
Yet as the novel opens, his life is headed for a dramatic change. It is six years later, and he is 52 years old. In the last hours of the sublimely mediocre presidency of Arthur Morgan, he is pardoned. This is done at the request of the CIA's legendary director, Teddy Maynard, nearly 80 years old and a dead ringer for the late James Jesus Angleton, who has a plan: Whisk Backman to another country, give him a new identity, teach him its language, set him up in a safe house, then let the intelligence services of the counties he dealt with know where he is. The country whose operatives kill him, Maynard says, will be revealed as the country that had operated the satellite system his machinations exposed.
So Backman is ousted from his cell, tossed aboard a military cargo plane and flown to Italy. At first he is set up in Treviso, north of Venice, but when things get hot there, his CIA handlers whisk him around from one place to another -- the idea is to keep him scared and compliant -- before finally settling on Bologna. A young tutor teaches him Italian by total immersion, new clothes are bought for him (the shoes are wired), a small apartment (also wired) is turned over to him, and he gets a new name: Marco Lazzeri. "That's you, pal," his handler tells him, "a full-blown Italian now. That's your birth certificate and national ID card. Memorize all the info as soon as possible."
Thus begins the remaking of Joel Backman, but more is remade than the CIA has bargained for. A persistent theme in Grisham's fiction, though I have never encountered the actual quotation therein, was stated by Benjamin Franklin: "Experience keeps a dear school, but fools will learn in no other." He puts his characters through the wringer, but some of them emerge not merely wiser but better. To be sure, Backman is "divorced, broke, thoroughly estranged from two of his three children and thoroughly forgotten by every friend he'd ever made," and his pardon is as roundly vilified in the press as was Bill Clinton's pardon of Marc Rich, but exile makes him think:
"What a sloppy life. Fifty-two years, and what's to show for a career of bilking clients, chasing secretaries around the office, putting the squeeze on slimy little politicians, working seven days a week, ignoring three surprisingly stable children, crafting the public image, building the boundless ego, pursuing money money money? What are the rewards for the reckless pursuit of the great American dream?
"Six years in prison. And now a fake name because the old one is so dangerous. And about a hundred dollars in his pocket."
Could it be that Backman is headed for redemption? Certainly it's clear from Grisham's previous novels that he can be merciful to characters who earn it: Clay Carter, for example, the young Washington lawyer in The King of Torts, is allowed to recover a measure of bruised idealism and decency after (temporarily) enriching himself in the class-action-lawyers' cartel. Here, though, the question must go unanswered, for we have reached the point in a Grisham novel at which it would be unfair to spill any more beans. While it is true that by page 50 the reasonably attentive reader probably has figured out the novel's general drift, how it gets there and with what consequences are anything except clear, and the rest must be left between Grisham and the reader.
It spills no beans, though, to say that here as in all his other books Grisham displays an impressive mastery of a lot of arcane, complicated stuff, from money transfers to cell-phone and Internet technology to the Italian language. In a disarming Author's Note he writes: "My background is law, certainly not satellites or espionage. I'm more terrified of high-tech electronic gadgets today than a year ago. . . . It's all fiction, folks. I know very little about spies, electronic surveillance, satellite phones, smartphones, bugs, wires, mikes and the people who use them. If something in this novel approaches accuracy, it's probably a mistake." Those self-effacing words stand in contrast to the militaristic struttings of Tom Clancy, who would have us believe he has mastered the intricacies of every piece of American military hardware, but methinks Grisham doth protest too much. He knows what he's doing, and it shows.
Still, it's true that what Grisham knows best is the law, and his novels are most plausible when they show lawyers at work, scheming and conniving and cheating and conspiring and, every once in a while, trying to do what's fair and right. I had a very good time with The Broker, found Backman believable and charming and interesting, got a few laughs and felt my pulse thumping as the climax approached. But there's a rather hasty aspect to the book: too many short paragraphs, too many unnecessary exclamation points, a rushed and contrived ending. My entirely unsolicited opinion is that Grisham has been writing at Mach 10 for too long. He should give it a rest for a couple of years, go back to Bologna (which he obviously loves) for pleasure rather than research, let the next book marinate for a while. He's proved beyond question that he's fast, he's prolific and he's good. Now it would be interesting to see just how good he really can be, and that, it says here, takes time.
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.