By Patrick Anderson,
who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Monday, January 26, 2009
By John Grisham
Doubleday. 373 pp. $27.95
In 2005, as part of an Alcoholics Anonymous recovery program, a Las Vegas man wrote letters of apology to people he might have harmed in his drinking days. One letter went to a woman who in 1984 had claimed that he raped her at a fraternity party when they were students at the University of Virginia, only to have her charges dismissed by police and school officials. But given the man's admission in his letter, the woman called police, and he was charged with rape; after plea bargaining, he served six months in a Virginia prison for a lesser offense. The case was extensively reported in Charlottesville, where the novelist John Grisham now lives, and he has made a fictional version of it central to "The Associate," his 21st novel.
When we meet Grisham's hero, Kyle McAvoy, the onetime Eagle Scout and star athlete is editor of the Yale Law Journal and fielding offers from prestigious law firms that want to hire him as a $200,000-a-year associate. However, the idealistic Kyle plans to do legal-aid work with migrant workers before joining a huge New York firm, Scully & Pershing. Then Kyle is visited by a sinister fellow who calls himself Bennie Wright and knows the one skeleton in his closet. Three years earlier, when he was a senior in college, Kyle and three fraternity brothers, after a long day of drinking, wound up in his apartment with a freshman girl. Two of the boys had sex with her, and one of them recorded the episode with his cellphone camera. Kyle didn't participate, but he was there, and Bennie, who has somehow acquired the video, threatens to make it public. He warns that Kyle could be charged as an accessory to rape -- because the girl may have passed out during the encounter. At best, Kyle's legal career would be ruined; at worst, Kyle and his friends would go to prison.
Bennie has come for blackmail, and the agonized Kyle decides he has no choice but to meet his demands. Kyle will forget about migrant workers and join Scully & Pershing, where he will serve as Bennie's spy, smuggling out confidential documents from a multibillion-dollar lawsuit between two defense industry giants. The rest of the novel has two main themes. The first highlights the horrors of being an associate in a powerful law firm. The associates are expected to work 50 to 100 hours a week, for which the clients are billed $300 an hour ($400 after the associates pass the bar). The work is boring and often pointless. It's a running joke that clients are billed for the time used when the lawyers have lunch, have sex or drive around looking for a parking place. The partners in the firm, who are paid well over a million dollars a year, are smart, cynical, greedy and dishonest. Kyle soon hates his job, as do most of the associates, and Grisham makes a persuasive case that their lives are hell on Earth.
The other theme is Kyle's reluctant role as Bennie's spy. Grisham lays it on thick here. Bennie and his thuggish colleagues follow Kyle around town, install bugs and cameras in his apartment, and gain access to his phones and e-mail. Kyle seeks to escape Bennie's grip, but it's a given in this sort of thriller that he won't do the sensible thing and go to the FBI. His plight is complicated when one of his fraternity brothers, after serious alcohol and drug abuse, joins AA and decides to write a letter of apology to the girl he now admits he raped. Kyle begs him not to do so, warning that nothing good can come of a confession. He's right.
Grisham has long since proved his narrative talent. His plot is highly fanciful, and he makes it easy for us to keep flipping the pages to see if Kyle can find a way out of this mess. He mostly writes clean, workmanlike prose, but I have one stylistic complaint about the novel. It's important to Grisham not only that Kyle be seen as noble, but also that his tormentor be a rat. Thus, as Bennie spits out his nefarious demands, we're variously told that he speaks "with a sneer," with a "smart-ass grin," with a "silly smirk." Enough already; we get it.
Grisham has achieved astonishing success by writing contrived novels -- like this one -- about shady dealings in the legal world. In this decade, however, he has expanded his horizons. He published his first book of nonfiction, "The Innocent Man," a serious look at a miscarriage of justice in Oklahoma. He has also published four novels that don't involve lawyers: "A Painted House," about growing up poor in Arkansas; "Bleachers," about high school football; "Skipping Christmas," about the horrors of life without Christmas; and "Playing for Pizza," about an American football player in Italy. Grisham clearly wants to stretch his talent, but legal thrillers like this one remain his bread and butter.
More than most of his recent legal novels, "The Associate" turns on a gimmick: Grisham is well aware that the danger to young men like Kyle McAvoy is not that a Bennie will blackmail them but that big money will seduce them. Yet it's Bennie and the blackmail and the rape story that will make the book a huge success. "The Associate" is, in its way, a devastating portrait of the big-time, big-bucks legal world. The only truly admirable lawyer we meet is Kyle's father, a small-town practitioner who is beloved by his clients and hates that his son is prostituting his talents in New York. There's a touching scene when Kyle and his father go deer hunting together. For Grisham, who started out as a small-town lawyer himself, that's Eden, a paradise where decent men and women do honest work and even pursue a dream of justice. Grisham knows and loves that world; one can only hope he'll return to it more often.