This review of John Grisham's new legal thriller, "The Confession," incorrectly referred to the 2006 Grisham book "The Innocent Man" as a novel. It is a work of nonfiction.
John Grisham's "The Confession," reviewed by Maureen Corrigan
By John Grisham
418 pp. $28.95
"The Confession" is the kind of grab-a-reader-by-the-shoulders suspense story that demands to be inhaled as quickly as possible. But it's also a superb work of social criticism in the literary troublemaker tradition of Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle." The novel's target -- the death penalty and its casualties -- derives from John Grisham's other life as activist and board member for the Innocence Project, an organization that fights to exonerate prisoners it deems wrongfully convicted.
For more than a decade, in his novels ("The Chamber," "The Innocent Man") and on editorial pages, Grisham has ruminated over the efficacy and morality of the death penalty. "The Confession" bangs the gavel and issues a clear verdict. As an advocacy thriller, it will rile some readers, shake up conventional pieties and, no doubt, change some minds. Whatever your politics, don't read this book if you just want to kick back in your recliner and relax.
The novel opens with a classic noir situation in which an ordinary Joe finds himself suddenly thrust by fate into a nightmare. In this case, our flummoxed hero is the Rev. Keith Schroeder, pastor of a Lutheran church in Topeka, Kan. Sitting in his church office one cold morning, Keith is paid a visit by a monster. Travis Boyette is a convicted felon, out on parole, whose rap sheet for sexual assault is as long as a fresh roll of yellow "crime scene" tape. Boyette tells Keith that he's dying from a malignant brain tumor and that he (maybe) wants to confess to the abduction, rape and murder of Nicole Yarber, a high school cheerleader from the small town of Slone, Tex., who disappeared almost 10 years ago.
After a couple of days of agonized dithering, Boyette shows Keith convincing proof of his guilt and the unlikely duo hatches a plan of action: If Keith drives Boyette to Slone -- and, thus, becomes his accomplice in breaking parole -- Boyette will confess to the authorities and take them to the spot where he buried Nicole's body. By the time the two men pile into Keith's clunker for the ultimate road trip from hell, speed is of the essence. In less than 24 hours, Donté Drumm, a former classmate of Nicole's, will be put to death for a murder he didn't commit.
The most harrowing sections of this 10-fingernail-biter of a novel are the flashbacks to Donté's arrest; the confession that was beaten out of him by frustrated Slone cops; and the chronicle of the years Donté has spent on death row, trying to clear his name and hold onto his sanity by reading the Bible and re-imagining his plays from his days as a Slone High football star. Here's how Grisham's narrator describes Donté's reflective frame of mind on what's scheduled to be his last day on Earth:
"You count the days and watch the years go by. You tell yourself, and you believe it, that you'd rather just die. You'd rather stare death boldly in the face and say you're ready because whatever is waiting on the other side has to be better than growing old in a six-by-ten cage with no one to talk to. You consider yourself half-dead at best. Please take the other half. . . .
"You count the days, and then there are none left. You ask yourself on your last morning if you are really ready. You search for courage, but the bravery is fading.
"When it's over, no one really wants to die."
Add to the excruciating tension of this situation the issue of race: Nicole was white, Donté is black. Agitators on both sides of the racial divide will burn and batter Slone, Tex., to the ground if Donté's execution goes through -- or doesn't. His defense team, led by exactly the kind of obsessive-compulsive egomaniac lawyer anyone would want in this horrific case, is working frantically on last-minute appeals. The governor of Texas, though, prides himself on his record of ignoring clemency approvals from his parole board and pushing through executions: "He loved the death penalty, especially when seeking votes." As Donté counts the minutes left in his life, Keith and his ghastly passenger race down country roads toward the defense lawyer's office.
There are plenty of sickening twists and turns to come. It's enough to say that Grisham doesn't spare his readers or himself from gruesome experiences or hard questions. At one crucial point in "The Confession," Keith is forced to ask himself whether he would approve of the death penalty if Boyette, instead of Donté, were scheduled to receive a lethal injection of muscle relaxer to stop his heart. By the time you finish reading this book, you may well find that your answer, like Keith's, is different from the one you would have given before this darkly brilliant narrative began.
Corrigan, who teaches literature at Georgetown University, is the book critic for the NPR program "Fresh Air."