Monday, September 1, 2008
A CURE FOR NIGHT
By Justin Peacock
Doubleday. 341 pp. $24.95
At the start of Justin Peacock's terrific first novel, "A Cure for Night" (to be published tomorrow), Joel Deveraux, a lawyer with a top-drawer Manhattan firm, unwisely hooks up with a co-worker, a sexy paralegal named Beth. She proves to be a junkie, and soon he's snorting heroin with her on weekends. Even worse, one day she ODs in the firm's ladies' room. In the aftermath of this disaster, Joel is ousted by the law firm and becomes a public defender in Brooklyn because no one else will hire him. That's when his education begins.
Joel, who narrates the story, is assigned to help a more experienced PD, Myra Goldstein, defend drug dealer Lorenzo Tate, who's accused of shooting two men, one fatally, in the dangerous and depressing Glenwood Gardens housing project. Tate is black, the man he allegedly killed was white, and the prosecutors are out for blood, or at least for headlines. As it happens, Tate convinces the two public defenders that he's innocent -- which few of their clients are -- and they, too, are ready for a fight.
The case becomes increasingly complicated, and by the time it reaches trial we have no idea if Tate is innocent or guilty or, in either event, whether his defenders can win his freedom. It's a good, gritty case, but it's only the start of what Peacock -- himself a lawyer in New York City -- wants to tell us. He takes us inside the public-defender culture, whose harried lawyers spend a lot of time worrying about the morality of getting guilty clients off, and agonizing when they can't keep innocent ones out of prison. The lawyers are mostly idealists moving fast toward cynicism, as when one remarks, "A criminal trial is a search for the truth, but the defense lawyer isn't a member of the search party."
The novel has a lot to say about the drug culture. In the projects, it's "the life," one that holds out the promise of money and prestige but also prison and death. Seeking witnesses in the project, Joel and Myra meet law-abiding people, along with drug dealers who'd as soon kill you as look at you. Here, for example, is what one man says about Devin, the young drug lord who was wounded in the shooting: "He got the rock, the powder, the chronic, that D called Bin Laden all them junkies be craving. He owns that courtyard out there in the Gardens. I beef with him, win or lose, I lose. Devin's soldiers take me out for sure." (Chronic, be it noted, is high-grade marijuana, and D is a name for heroin.)
But Peacock's portrait of the drug culture extends well beyond the housing project. Devin and his crew have built a thriving business selling to white students at nearby Brooklyn College. The novel also includes a vivid flashback to the snowbound weekend when Beth, the paralegal, introduced Joel to heroin: "The pleasure was almost sexual, yet lacking sex's strain, its battle with self-consciousness, its animal need. . . . It was a glorious physical glow, a slow burn. The room acquired a stillness. Movement had become unnecessary, extraneous. We were both still, our eyes closed as if in sleep, some deeper species of rest." If that seems to romanticize the heroin experience, be assured that moments later Joel is vomiting, and soon the drug, having led to sex, replaces it.
"A Cure for Night" has a routine plot -- young lawyer, difficult client -- but rises above it because Peacock writes so well. Few first-time novelists share his ability to maintain a fast pace even as he introduces well-drawn characters and explores interesting ideas. And his use of dialogue, particularly among the dealers, is first-rate. Among the lawyers, Myra, Joel's tough-as-nails partner, is a nice creation. She's an angular woman with unruly hair who smells of cigarettes but is not without an edgy appeal. At first, she bristles at having Joel assigned to her murder case. But, unsurprisingly, friction leads to flirtation. Underlying the entire story is the question of whether Joel is happier as an underpaid, overworked public defender than he was as a highly paid associate in a fancy Manhattan firm where all that mattered was money. Increasingly, he embraces the underdog values of the public defender's office. I'm going to give this book to a law student I know, because it's an honest look at the choices and frustrations young lawyers face.
The novel climaxes not only with a verdict in the trial of Lorenzo Tate, but with a final scene that made me late for a lunch date because I couldn't stop reading. If the chilling events therein don't cure Joel and Myra of their idealism, nothing will. When the prizes are awarded for this year's best first novel, "A Cure for Night" will be competing for the gold.