BOOK REVIEW : Courtroom Thriller Takes a Novel Look at the Legal World : WILKES His Life and Crimes by Winston Schoonover Ballantine $8.95 paper, 352 pages

After a summer of unrelieved Scott Turow-mania, here comes one savvy courtroom thriller that was not written by the celebrated attorney-cum-novelist. The author of "Wilkes" deserves celebrity of his very own. His tale of crime and punishment in contemporary America is not only smart and suspenseful, but also outrageously funny. Thankfully, "Wilkes" owes less to Turow than to the fever-dream fantasies of Richard Condon or the anxiety-ridden morality tales of Joseph Heller.

John Wilkes, one of the more memorable figures in the literature of the law, is introduced to us as an "indomitable courtroom guerrilla fighter, terrorizer of prosecutors and their witnesses, slayer of overwhelming trial odds, judge baiter and hater, sometimes teetotaler and prescription drug abuser, prankster and imp, lover of laughter, money, and acquittals, (and) premier self-promoter."

A mere courtroom cannot contain Wilkes. He manages to tangle himself in a prison riot, a rigged television game show, a jet-set kidnapping to Quito, a Mob-influenced election, even a poisoning by neo-classical means. While there is a plot in here somewhere--or, rather, a hundred and one plots--the real glory of "Wilkes" is the sheer phantasmagoria of a man caught up in the Alice-in-Wonderland world of the criminal courts.

What makes "Wilkes" especially intriguing is the fact that the novel is something of an in-joke and an elaborate literary put-on by its real author, Charles Sevilla, one of the leading criminal defense attorneys and appellate specialists in the United States. Sevilla, whose skirmishes in the appellate courts kept condemned murderer Robert Alton Harris from his date in the gas chamber at San Quentin last April, is a San Diego lawyer who adopted the pseudonym and persona of Winston Schoonover to unburden himself of his own war stories and horror stories about the criminal justice system.

The book is presented as a series of reminiscences by Schoonover, who plays Dr. Watson to Wilkes' Sherlock Holmes, and it has the leisurely, even courtly pacing of a Victorian novel. Schoonover dispenses his story in short narrative bursts under wry subheads (examples: "I Bring You Joy!" "Big-Game Hunters," "Jack Twink"), which suggests an old-fashioned newspaper serial. And, in fact, various episodes from the life of John Wilkes have appeared in legal periodicals otherwise devoted to the finer points of criminal defense. At its best, "Wilkes" is a knowing, ribald and high-spirited parody of a profession that has taken itself all too seriously.

There's a certain Runyonesque quality to the unlikely cast of characters Schoonover has assembled here: hanging judges and railroading attorneys, drug-pushers, point-shaving basketball players, pimps, promoters and hit men, "knuckle-draggers," "free-spirited gonzos," "well-credentialed prosecution whores" and even "an elderly forensic jargonologist." Wilkes, we come to understand, is not exactly fastidious about the company he keeps.

The most compelling character is Wilkes himself. He is one lawyer who unabashedly embraces "the two most beautiful words in the English language: legal technicalities ." He favors what he calls the "Old Wine Defense," and disdains the right to a speedy trial: "Fast justice is like fast food. It's junk."

The marvelous Mr. Wilkes can cite chapter and verse from the Bible or the Constitution with equal facility. When it really counts, he is able to recite Oscar Wilde's "Ballad of Reading Gaol" in its entirety. He has a ready command of both Sicilian street slang and classical Latin; he can harangue an ugly mob of rioting inmates in the Tombs, and he can quote Ovid in the courtroom: "Qui sapit, innumeris moribus aputs erit (A wise man knows how to deal with all sorts of characters)."

Even though Schoonover adopts a rather elegant (if unrelentingly ironic) tone in "Wilkes," he does not hesitate to tell it exactly like it is in the mean streets (and courtrooms and jail cells) of New York City. For example, he provides graphs and charts to explain the semantic shadings of a certain twelve-letter word that cannot be repeated here. You will have to read the book for yourself to find out exactly what he means when he refers to "Winston Jr." or "a lay witness."

When I picked up "Wilkes," I knew only of Sevilla's reputation as a superb criminal defense attorney--and, I might add, a man of conscience, zeal and integrity. ("Wilkes" is no veiled autobiography.) To these qualities, I can now add that he is also a storyteller with a generous gift for black humor and a fine command of the absurd. What we learn from "Wilkes," I suppose, is that such qualities are what enable a lawyer like Sevilla to stay sane in the Kafkaesque realm in which he practices.

Next: Richard Eder reviews "Shuffle" by Leonard Michaels. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux).

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