Feeding our insatiable national appetite for books about lawyers, Richard Kluger's current novel chronicles the emergence into the profession of a young woman he calls Tabor Hill. The first half of the book poses a classic feminist question: Assuming that certain qualities are required for success in the law (brains, and aggressiveness, Kluger seems to think), can a woman endowed with these qualities as fully as any man achieve a man's success? The answer seems to be a resounding "yes."
As Tabor Hill presents herself she is super-smart, totally dedicated to the law (high-minded too) and ao deliberately lacking in feminine charm as to win even a New York lawyer's award for abrasiveness. Gifted with these qualities she rakes in all the familiar tokens of legal success: law review at a prestigious law school (Yale, though it's called Mather in the look); a clerkship with the city's best federal judge (the city again sounds a lot like New Haven); apprenticeship in a legal assistance office; and, finally, a job with the local "establishment" law firm, a five-man partnership with close ties to the city's town, gown and business interests. Here she is made a partner in the remarkably short time of two years, over the heads of two longer-tenured male associates, on the strength of her legal brilliance even though she has insisted on taking a large number of controversial pro bono cases guaranteed to cause discomfort to the firm's paying clientele. So far so good.
As readers of legal memoirs -- from Louis Nizer's to F. Lee Bailey's -- know, it is hard for the achievements of a legal hotshot to be described in the first person without that hotshot coming to seem unappealingly selfregarding. The first half of "Star Witnes" suffers from this difficulty; it is hard to like Hill well enough to care what happens to her or her legal career. The second half of the book, however, if you can make if this far, takes off and separates from the first half almost as the second stage of a rocket when the first burns out.
In the second half the hitherto selfdevoted Hill acquires a complement of friends and lovers who, attracted by her ability and energy, are put off by her refusal to give up anything of herself for another person's sake -- by her insistence in preserving the independence which, she firmly believes, is the key to getting out from under man's alleged enslavement of woman.
Kluger's focus now shifts to the question of whether any very bright and ambitous professional can afford to release some energy from the care of his or her own all-important career to pay some unselfish attention to another person. As Kluger grapples with this problem the near overcontrol of the early part of his book falls apart. His charachers begin to combine and recombine like Californians; his heroine loses her direction in the tilting of a legal windmill; and the best Kluger can do with the book's confused ending is suggest that the now battle-scarred Hill may be getting ready to embrace personal responsibility for a husband and even a child -- may, indeed, be getting ready to grow up.
As a Novel "Star Witness " is a reasonably serious effort that doesn't quite come off. It is too long, and the writing, while carefully literate, is never compelling. Kluger describes several of Hill's cases in order to show the reader what law practice is like, but he can't match Anthony Trollope's feat in "The Eustace Diamonds " of making a legal opinion about a question of property law both fascinating and dramatic. One suspects that the reason Tabor Hill spends so much time on pro bono work is that her creator finds it easier to write readable prose about public-issue litigation than about corporate tax practice.
The book takes the existence of clients and incoming money for granted, and it seems implausible that Tabor Hill can be doing her share, by dropping an occasional very bright idea, to the daily combination of hand-holding and fence-mending that supports the business of a law practice. Maybe Tabor Hill will learn about this part when she grows up.