"The Litigators" by John Grisham

The Washington Post, October 21, 2011

Is it me, or are John Grisham's titles following a slow ramp to dreariness? The muted menace of "The Firm" and "The Client" has given way to such spine-tinglers as "The Broker," "The Appeal," "The Associate" and now, in a flourish of syllables designed to stop the pulse, "The Litigators." With a chill of foreboding, I await "The Trademark and Copyright Specialists" and "The Underground Storage Tank Regulators."

Fortunately, the books themselves are climbing in the other direction. I speak as someone who abandoned Grisham after plowing through three early volumes, which were page-turners only in the sense that nothing much was holding the pages down. Wit, texture, idiosyncrasy, anything that might have kept the chassis from speeding home had been stripped away.

Did that affect Grisham's sales? It did not. But instead of (or in addition to) laughing all the way to the bank, he took the road less traveled by: He got better. He worked some new kinks into the old formulas. He read (I'm guessing) Elmore Leonard and Michael Connelly and Scott Turow with profit. Most intriguingly, he began tossing back drinks with characters who would never in their lives be played by Tom Cruise.

So if you're a Grisham apostate, now might be the time to get reacquainted. And this snappy, well-turned novel might be a good place to start.

Our hero is David Zinc, a Harvard Law grad and, at 31, a burnt-out case, one of the many associates and junior partners toiling for long hours and large (unspent) wages in a downtown Chicago law firm. All is going as planned, which is to say horribly, until one morning David suffers an anxiety attack on the 93rd floor and bolts. After a long day's drinking, he ends up in the gutter outside an establishment called Finley & Figg.

The business of this particular firm is "hustling injury cases, a daily grind that required little skill or creativity and would never be considered cool or sexy. Profits were as elusive as status. The firm was small because it couldn't afford to grow. It was selective only because no one wanted to work there, including the two men who owned it. . . . With a Vietnamese massage parlor to its left and a lawn mower repair shop to its right, it was clear at a casual glance that Finley & Figg was not prospering."

Nor is anyone inside it. The secretary, Rochelle, is bitter and undercompensated. The senior partner, Oscar, is married to "a terrifying woman he wanted to sue every day for his own divorce." And the junior partner, Wally, is a temporarily recovering alcoholic trolling for business in funeral homes and bingo parlors.

It's the kind of ambulance-chasing outfit that can't even afford to advertise on billboards or TV, but David is desperate enough for a change that he offers his services on the spot. And for a pittance. His leap of faith is rewarded when the firm climbs aboard a class-action suit against the makers of Krayoxx, an anti-cholesterol drug that might or might not be causing heart attacks and strokes.

The evidence against the drug is thin, and the plaintiffs are few, but Wally sees the litigation as the firm's chance to "forget the humdrum of the street, the cheap divorces and drunk drivers, and go for the big money." That promise of a quick settlement unexpectedly lands the three lawyers in federal court, where none of them has argued a case, and pits them against an army of obscenely well-paid barracudas from David's old firm.

And if you think you know where this is heading . . . yes, you do, and no, you don't, because Grisham swerves clear of the usual melodramatic devices. Corporations aren't intrinsically venal; plaintiffs aren't lambent with goodness. And best of all, no one is murdered for stumbling Too Close to the Truth. The closest we ever come to violence is a bungled arson attempt and the cold-cocking of a blogger. (Take that, New Media.)

To these tragicomic proceedings, Grisham brings his usual nuanced understanding of tort law and civil jurisprudence, but he seems just as interested in the non-experts. Those hard-luck cases, for instance, who sign on to the Krayoxx suit: widows and sons seeking the break that's eluded them all their lives. At the risk of making Grisham sound pretentious or -- worse -- boring, I would argue that his true subject -- now that he has the luxury to explore it -- is how the law serves as both accessory and antagonist to our dreams.

Fiction, of course, is an even chancier system than the law. The result is that a superficially "good" character such as David's wife remains dead on the page (so does David, to some extent), while those old reprobates Oscar and Wally, warriors of the streets, stroll off with our sympathies. The author's, too, I'd wager. "The Litigators" is about a man who quits the path of assured wealth to work among the broken and fallible. From a certain distance, he resembles John Grisham.