LEON DREW is an advertising copywriter, a faithful (most of the time) husband, indulgent parent, and valiant "citizen soldier" of the City of New York, as representative of his niche in the ecosystem of Manhattan as a man statistically can be without fathering fractional children. Leon Drew is summoned to jury duty, is denied a fourth postponement, and is impaneled to render judgment in a suit brought against the city by a taxi driver whose cab has been totaled by a pair of city buses. Was the fault the cabbie's or the bus drivers'? And (this is Leon Drew's present assignment at work) how shall he sell the idea of a vertical (25-story) graveyard on Riverside Drive to a citizenry accustomed to earth burial? Leon Drew's ever-over-active imagination oscillates between these two questions, responds to a variety of domestic alerts, and simultaneously leads him, on his downtown lunch hours during his week of jury duty, to commit a series of dumbfounding (and, I cofess, delightful) gratuitous crimes.
If Bob Newhart of sitcom fame were to start behaving like Raskolnikov, the effect could not be more disquieting, and when some pages go by and the author offers no explanation for Leon Drew's aberrant behavior, disquieting deepens to uncanny -- as though Bob Newhart had been metamorphosed into Kafka's beetle. Though we are privy to every twist and turn of Leon Drew's devious consciousness, though we witness each pulse of emotion in his conjugal and paternal heart, we aren't given a clue to what leads him to these bursts of antisocial inspiration. He doesn't discuss the matter with his consciousness, and the author provides no omniscient guidance -- not, at least, till nearly the end and then only by the drift of certain implications.
This is all the odder in view of how intimately the reader is allowed to share Leon Drew's thoughts. Here he is, at the beginning of Chapter 12, waking up:
"After a night of restful, nourishing sleep Leon Drew woke with the dawn. He heard a bird singing, unusual in itself. The birds in his neighborhood were sullen and silent. This bird chirped at the new sun. Leon Drew theorized that for a bird the young sun is a kind of ultimate bird that owns the sky. The bird song was probably an attempt at dialogue, possibly courtship. Leon Drew's own small dog had once tried to mount a Great Dane. Nature's simplier creatures presume equality. Leon Drew had himself been opposed by bugs who stood their ground in his kitchen. For the warbler the sun could be a seductive airborne innocent. If a moth mates with fire why not a bird with the sun? It was refreshing to think such thoughts."
Refreshing -- yes, I agree. But are these the thoughts of a felon? Of a man who would actually . . . Ah, but it won't do to say what Leon Drew does. The contradiction is plain enough without having to spoil any of the fun.
The effect of this disconnectedness is Kafkaesque, certainly, but not in the darkened-varnish monochromes of fin de siecle Prague -- rather, in the jittering colors of those high-focus realists whose favorite themes are supermarket aisles and neon-lit shop-fronts. Every page -- every half-page -- yields some sudden jolt of comic or lyric observation, like the graph of an erratic heart. Jacobs manages to be steadily humorous and often broadly comic without yielding to the American humorist's besetting temptation to crack wise at every opportunity (unlike, among so many others, Woody Allen, or Peter De Vries, or Fran Lebowitz). He likewise manages to satirize our all-too-human foibles and failures without becoming too blackly unforgiving.
Jacobs is at his best sketching in a character with a few strokes and then providing, just as quickly, some defining lines of dialogue. The novel's courtroom situation with a judge, lawyers, defendant, the succession of witnesses and panel of jurors lends itself admirably to such gifts. The situation is also a moral microcosm for what the book is mainly about, which is a celebration of urban life -- even scary, violence-prone, and roach-infested urban life -- as the forum where all good men and women can assemble to discourse, trade jokes, share meals, and make assignations. Such a faith that an understanding (or, at least, a reasonable compromise) can be reached, provided certain protocols are observed, is at the heart of liberalism. Harvey Jacob's brand of liberalism is, admittedly, a volatile mixture: his ideal commmonwealth is one in which mugger and muggee discuss their relationship with cogency and wit, in which even rape can be snuggly. Muggings and rapes, he seems to say, will, like the poor, always be with us, so we might as well relax and enjoy them. Ditto the other components of the problem of evil.
And Leon Drew's crimes -- does he actually get away with them? Though I'm honorbound not to reveal the ending, I will say that justice is done and murder is gotten away with. In real life one may reject such a resolution as less than righteous, but The Juror, after all, is not real life, it's faction, a fairy tale for urban adults, who, if they will relax, are bound to enjoy it.