by John Grisham
I run hot and cold on John Grisham. I read his early books avidly for their cinematic action and heart-warming triumphs of the canny “little guy” over better armed, better positioned but evil adversaries.
But eventually, I got tired of two-dimensional, virtually interchangeable protagonists and predictable endings.
His 1998 novel, The Street Lawyer, is the first Grisham book I’ve read in ages. It’s an entertaining book to read by the pool, on the beach or at an airport.
The story opens with a classic Grisham high-drama scene: a homeless man takes nine lawyers hostage in a conference of the prestigious international law firm of Drake & Sweeney. One lawyer, Michael Brock, is standing several feet behind the homeless man when he allows the conference room door to be opened to bring in food. A police sniper shoots him in the head, spraying Michael with blood and brain tissue.
The blood washes off but the experience stains him forever.
His wife Claire, a neurosurgery resident, doesn’t call or pick him up after the incident. He sits in an empty condo until late when Claire comes home at the end of her shift at the hospital. He faces the fact that his marriage is dead in every way except legally.
The juxtaposition the homeless man created between the wealth of the hostage lawyers and the poverty of homeless people on the street stick with Brock. The near-death experience opens his eyes to the nonstop treadmill he’s been on to make partner and earn money for the firm — all for perks he has no time to enjoy.
The homeless man briefly mentions being evicted, a comment that keeps nudging Brock’s consciousness. After reading a story in the Washington Post about the incident, Brock goes to meet with Mordecai Green, director of the 14th Street Legal Clinic, to learn more about the homeless man (DeVon Hardy) and his eviction.
The more Brock learns, the closer he comes to discovering just how involved his law firm Drake & Sweeney was in the “eviction” and tragic consequences to those who lost what little shelter they had from winter blizzards after the eviction.
Grisham offers a split perspective between the world of high-powered top law firms and the world of the homeless facing hunger, addictions and lack of shelter, jobs, funds and resources. He doesn’t paint a black and white picture, and he doesn’t gloss over the bone-hard labor involved in helping to pull someone back from the edge once they have lost their home.
While Brock obviously doesn’t solve the problem of homelessness in Washington, DC, the book ends on an up-beat note, with a number of characters, including some of the “bad” guys changing course to make life a little better for a lot of people.
That optimism and victory at the end may well be one of the secrets of Grisham’s ongoing success.
About the Author: John Grisham, Jr. (1955 – )