Populism: The Thriller
A few years ago I concocted a theory about John Grisham I was too lazy to prove. Here was the hypothesis: This bestselling author was the most successful popularizer of populist notions in American culture. His stories--on paper and onscreen--often pit small folks against malicious corporations and their anything-for-a-buck lawyers who manipulate a system that favors monied elites. In The Pelican Brief, a rapacious oil developer looking to drill in the environmentally precious marshlands of Louisiana funnels millions to government officials and bumps off two Supreme Court Justices to thwart a lawsuit brought by public-interest lawyers against his wildlife-threatening scheme. In The Rainmaker, a young lawyer battles a mega-firm on behalf of a couple screwed over by an insurance company that won't cover a bone-marrow transplant for their son, who is dying of leukemia. The Runaway Jury's bad guy is Big Tobacco. In The Street Lawyer, a corporate attorney bolts from his firm when he discovers it's been wrongfully evicting poor people from their homes. Justice for sale. Money in politics. Corporate greed and malfeasance. And millions of readers devour this stuff.
But not me. I was interested in this notion of Grisham the Populist, based on reading the book reviews and seeing several Grisham flicks. After tearing through The Pelican Brief--too breezy, too melodramatic, too unrealistic, even for airport fiction--I was not eager to do the heavy lifting necessary to confirm the theory (that is, read the books). Instead, I tasked an assistant to peruse some Grisham novels and draft plot summaries. In the meantime, I wrote Grisham and requested an interview to discuss the politics of Grishamland. Should face time be granted, I figured, I would crack open paperbacks in preparation. In the meantime, the summaries started appearing on my desk, and my assistant complained, "This is like reading television." But no word came back from Oxford, Mississippi. I deep-sixed Project Grisham.
Then recently the phone rang. A book review editor asked, "Didn't you once have some ideas about John Grisham?" "Well, uh, kind of, but I didn't really pursue it...." Yet that was enough for this editor: The new Grisham was being FedExed to my office. I was back on the case.
I was under no illusion that Grisham was a modern-day Steinbeck or Odets. He's not writing to send a message. And he does take his swipes at progressive-minded characters. The NAACP lawyer in A Time to Kill is an egotistical cad who cares more about money and power than helping a black man on trial for killing the two white men who raped his daughter. The anti-tobacco activists of The Runaway Jury use underhanded means to defeat the tobacco-industry lawyers. But by placing legal Davids in battle against corporate Goliaths to derive drama, Grisham has consistently presented an unflattering picture of the Enron class. However, his latest, The Summons, only marginally hews to such a story line. The main clash is not between the powerful and the screwed. It occurs within a family. There is an evil-corporations subplot, but it's mostly device, not driving force.
The setup: Ray Atlee, a 43-year-old law professor at the University of Virginia, receives a letter from his dying father, "The Judge," calling Atlee back home to Clanton, Mississippi, to discuss his father's estate. Atlee, estranged from Dad and the ancestral home, does not look forward to the trip. He's already in a funk. His ex-wife has married a millionaire corporate raider and borne him twins (conceived, all too obviously, while she was married to Atlee), and a lovely (and rich) third-year law student is teasing Atlee silly. So off he goes in his midlife-crisis sports coupe to the town he escaped. When Atlee arrives home, he finds Dad dead. Atlee dutifully starts organizing his father's papers and stumbles across a surprise: more than $3 million in cash hidden in twenty-seven stationer's boxes. Where did this poorly paid public servant get the moolah? What should Atlee do with all those Ben Franklins? Include them in the estate--which would mean the government would grab its share, his father's honor might be tainted and Atlee's alcoholic/junkie brother, Forrest, would claim half and be able to finance his descent into complete self-destruction?
This is a what-would-you-do mystery, and a how-would-you-do-it thriller. (We learn that three mil in hundreds fills three large garbage bags--and that poses logistical difficulties if you're driving a car with a small trunk.) Grisham throws in enough moral shading to supply Atlee reason beyond avarice to take the money and run. But greed hovers, even as Atlee tells himself he's not sure he's going to keep the loot. First, he has to uncover the backstory.
A warning to any potential readers of The Summons: There are a few plot points in this book, and to describe it further is to reveal precious twists. If you have an inclination to read this novel, do not continue beyond this paragraph. Skip ahead to the review of the Italian Baroque lady painter who specialized in blood-drenched scenes.
OK, now that the Grisham fans are gone, let me say that this book is much better than the improbability-ridden Pelican Brief, but it was still unsatisfying. The main dilemma is engaging--what to do with free, albeit probably tainted, money?--yet there's not much oomph to the tale. Perhaps that's because Grisham does not provide reason for readers to care about Atlee. He's a good-enough sort, plays well with fellow faculty members, has been hurt by a woman who done him wrong and won't sleep with a student until she graduates. He specializes in antitrust, but we're spared his views. He's not the Jimmy Stewart type, drawn helplessly into an alternative world of intrigue. He's a guy who likes flying and is coasting. Until he finds the cash.
Atlee then faces three immediate challenges: how to move the money without being spotted, how to determine whether it's marked and how to discover its origins. Of course, he's able to succeed on each front, but the trouble is that these tasks end up not requiring great ingenuity. Also, there's someone trailing him, and that unknown person wants the cash and is willing to use violence to get it. Atlee has to watch his back as he shuttles to various rental-storage lockers (where he keeps the money) and to various casinos (where he drops hundred-dollar bills, looking to see if the expert money-handlers will detect them as marked). As for the money's source, Atlee's investigation is too straightforward. In the judge's papers, the files concerning one case are missing. Atlee heads to the Gulf Coast to examine the court records. He then talks to the lawyer who won. And--bing!--that mystery is solved, a bit too easily.
It is this case that brings us the novel's hint of populism. Seems a Swiss pharmaceutical behemoth was selling an anticholesterol drug that had an unfortunate side effect: kidney failure. The company was aware of the problem but marketed the drug anyway. By the time Judge Atlee came to be presiding over a wrongful death suit, filed against the company by a widow living in rural Mississippi, tens of thousands of kidneys had been ruined. The judge showed the company's lawyers no quarter and in the end socked the pharma with an $11.1 million fine. "The opinion," Grisham writes, "was a scathing indictment of corporate recklessness and greed.... [The] trial was Judge Atlee at his finest." How did this lead to boxes full of cash? I'll leave that to your imagination. Here Grisham is in sync with his past us-versus-them plots. But The Summons does not dwell upon the malfeasance of the drug-maker. Rather, the book blasts away at the attorney who won the case, in what amounts to an indictment of mass-tortlawyers. The pages drip with scorn for attorneys who become wealthy by handling class-action suits against corporate malefactors, such as tobacco companies and asbestos manufacturers. "I worship money," this lawyer tells Atlee. Grisham takes the bogeymen of the Naderish left and the Chamber of Commerce right--corporate evildoers and trial attorneys--and places them in a state of moral equivalence.
But this is far from the point of the book; it's simply the point of my review, for there's not much to dig into in The Summons. The solutions to the few mysteries in it are not big shockers. The novel contains just enough elegant touches to make readers realize there should be more. Atlee's difficult relationship with his brother is rendered well. The impact of the found money on Atlee is interesting to watch. Yes, watch--this is like reading television. But the drama is not as intense as in A Simple Plan, which used a similar scenario. (Grisham does obliquely reference that book/movie in this novel.) Atlee's desire to hold on to the bucks ends up threatening his comfortable life, and Grisham throws in a much-yearned-for curveball toward the end. For a moment, it looks as if Atlee might actually be facing time in the slammer. But fate is not that unkind. And who is it that's after Atlee? A reader who looks at this book as an English parlor mystery, wherein the culprit has to be someone in the room, will not be hard pressed to conjure up the answer.
Back to the important matter: my take on Grisham. He's certainly not writing left-wing agitprop disguised as legal-drama pulp. But in his universe, lustful and reckless corporations often run wild until they are checked by a righteous judge or some other soul moved by ideals, not dollars. Trial attorneys might be scumbuckets who care more about champagne baths than about their clients. Still, Grisham has the novel's annoying millionaire ambulance-chaser tell Atlee, "It takes people like me to keep 'em honest"--a proposition that neither author nor protagonist rebuts. The Summons does not advance the unsteady justice-ain't-equal populism of Grisham's previous work. That's not its mission. But in general Grisham presents the tens of millions who glide through his popcorn novels with the view--in some books more than others--that life is often unfair for a reason, unfair by design, and that specific interests are responsible for this. Not quite a Nation editorial, but better than Sidney Sheldon.