THE Washington novel used to be about politics and power, sex and scandal, elections and intrigue among capital insiders. If John Grisham’s latest is anything to go by, the new Washington novel will be, as Washington itself increasingly is, about image. Since the invention of the music video, people seem to have stopped expecting popular entertainment to provide much in the way of plot or characterization or serious themes or, indeed, anything but a succession of stylish figures striking cool attitudes; and Grisham has brought the ethos of the music video to popular fiction. Not that Grisham himself should be blamed for this state of mind. It is everywhere in Bill Clinton’s Washington. Even Phyllis C. Richman, the restaurant reviewer for the Washington Post, writes of a trendy local eatery: “Look around the dining room . . . and you’ll guess you are seeing academics in D.C. for a conference, journalists not with sources but with gossip pals, lawyers who wouldn’t work for corporations but only for public-interest groups.”
Clearly, the hint that working for “public-interest groups” is a fashion statement is not something that originated with John Grisham. But Grisham — who, if he chose to, could count his novels toward his own pro bono resume, since they amount to unpaid public-relations work for the Trial Lawyers Association — is making the most of this new lawyer-chic. His latest hero, Michael Brock, a 32-year-old associate in anti-trust law with one of the biggest and most prestigious Washington firms, is briefly taken hostage by a homeless street person who calls himself “Mister.” After managing to slip past security, Mister terrorizes a number of lawyers at Michael’s firm with a firearm and what he pretends is dynamite strapped to his body; he is eventually shot and killed by a police SWAT team.
Michael was standing behind Mister when the bullet hit and, though unharmed, continues to be haunted by his captor’s challenges to his fellow K Street fat cats. What has he done for the poor and the homeless? How can he continue to take home his six-figure salary and look forward to millions more after he makes partner, he muses, when the Gingrichite hordes are throwing more and more people into the streets every day? So he quits his cushy job and joins a store-front “street law” clinic supported by a charitable foundation and run by a big-hearted, street-smart black lawyer called Mordecai Green. Michael’s new salary is only $30,000, with few benefits. But there is hope of better things to come. For on his way out, he stole a file from his old firm which implicates the fat cats in illegal activity that led to the deaths of a single mother and her four children. He and Mordecai happily set about suing his former colleagues for millions.
He also divorces his wife, who is not prepared to take the cut in pay (but whom he is tired of in any case), and he worries his bourgeois parents and greedy corporate-lawyer brother. He is very proud of himself. “I even looked the part,” reflects the preening Michael as he sits in his new office; “my beard was more than a week old; my hair was slightly over the ears and showing the first signs of unkemptness; my khakis were wrinkled; my navy blazer was rumpled; my tie was loosened just so. The Nikes were still stylish but well-worn. A pair of horn-rimmed glasses, and I would have been the perfect public-interest lawyer.” Michael is the kind of guy who is always catching little glimpses, like that one, of himself in the mirror of his own inspiring story, and this novel which tells his story often reads like a tour through somebody’s scrapbook. “There I am helping a junkie kick her habit, feeding a homeless person, marching in a demonstration against uncaring government,” he tells us proudly — and he (or Grisham) expects us to coo our approval.
Here, for example, Michael again watches himself as he sits in his new office: “If my dear brother Warner could’ve seen me sitting there on Sunday, shivering at my sad little desk, staring at the cracks in the plaster, locked in so that my potential clients couldn’t mug me, he would’ve hurled insults so rich and colorful that I would’ve been compelled to write them down. I couldn’t comprehend my parents’ reaction . . .” But we know he really loves it. “Look at me!” he all but cries in narcissistic glee. “Aren’t I the very devil for defying my boring parents and brother and their selfish, middle-class, workaholic values?” He is even a little bit in awe of himself and the splendor of his sacrifice. As he contemplates going to work for Mordecai and the poor people, he tells us, “My soul kept me awake most of the night. Did I have the guts to walk away? Was I seriously considering taking a job which paid so little? I was literally saying good-bye to millions. The things and possessions I longed for would become fading memories.”
Many’s the tear that will doubtless roll down, glistening, from beneath the frames of designer sunglasses on beaches across America when those words are read. Yet neither Grisham nor his hero ever demonstrates the slightest shame at making the poor street people, none of whom is given any depth of character or individuality to speak of, mere props in the drama of this yuppie paragon. His creator obviously shares young Michael’s high opinion of himself and believes, as Michael believes, that the street lawyer cuts quite a figure in his blazer and beard and fashionably well-worn Nikes. And he does, too. But it is not the figure of a hero of the mean streets so much as it is that of a conscience-stricken yuppie like his creator.
Small wonder that Grisham has made himself into a virtual brand name among novelists — the DKNY Dickens or the Starbucks Stevenson. Instead of leaving his own riches and working for the poor, he writes novels about impossibly noble characters who leave their riches and work for the poor — and so he makes more money! It’s the perfect set-up for him, painlessly quieting his own qualms while he dominates the best-seller lists by exploiting the huge market of well-paid, college-educated professionals who read four books a year and would have everything if they could find a clear conscience for themselves at The Sharper Image. He tells them that everything is OK so long as they hold the right political opinions (the Republicans are repeatedly traduced here) and contribute something to the public-interest lawyers who live off the welfare state and occasionally get to make life miserable for the fat cats.
Moreover, Grisham has given his less fortunate legal brethren a dream of escape from the tedium and the nastiness and the work and the corruption of the legal profession. It is a dream not of life in wrinkled khaki trousers and Nike tennis shoes as a public-interest lawyer like that poor mug, Michael; it is a dream of life as a rich novelist like himself. Now every third lawyer and law student in the land has a partly completed novel or screenplay in his bottom drawer. And who can blame these young lawyers? They are under no illusions that their professional lives will be devoted to the righting of wrongs and the pursuit of justice; they know that their hopes of wealth from lawyering are tainted. Far better, then, to get rich by thinking up stories about imaginary lawyers — selfless and idealistic lawyers who do well by doing good. Not to mention that it is a lot easier work and you don’t have to commute.