JOHN GRISHAM sometimes seems less a literary personality than a force of nature -- his books a showy kind of regularly reoccurring natural phenomenon, a sort of Halley’s comet between hard covers.
People who keep track of such things report that Grisham was the bestselling author of the 1990s, when readers bought more than 60 million of his books. He belongs to an elite group of authors who have sold out first printings of 2 million volumes. Grisham remains the only author to have written a novel that topped the bestseller lists for seven consecutive years.
In the world of popular fiction, those sorts of numbers not only put you beyond the reach of conventional criticism, but they also obscure any purpose but brute commerce. That’s a shame in Grisham’s case, because no other writer of his popularity is quite so keen-eyed or as fierce a social critic. He’s an idealist but not an optimist; a moralist but not a moralizer.
“The Appeal” is his 20th novel, and it’s as angry, dark and urgent a piece of social realism as you’re likely to find on the bestseller lists any time soon. Further, in this presidential election year, it’s a far more blunt, accurate and plain-spoken indictment of our contemporary political system’s real failings than you’re likely to find anywhere on the nonfiction lists.
Grisham has set himself an interesting task in “The Appeal” -- to simultaneously explore the malevolent influence of moneyed special interests on our electoral system and to rehabilitate the social standing of trial lawyers. The latter may prove a tougher sell than the former. Big business and its allies in the Republican Party have spent decades so successfully vilifying “trial lawyers” as legal vultures and social parasites that the two words virtually have become an epithet. Witness the sniping at Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards, a millworker’s son who earned much of his considerable personal fortune trying horrific medical malpractice cases. The fact that nearly every dollar in a trial lawyer’s wallet came from obtaining injured individuals the justice they otherwise would have been denied by our system is somehow lost in all the derisive hooting about expensive haircuts.
Not on Grisham, part of whose purpose here is to remind his readers that the trial lawyer’s contingency fee is the poor man’s key to the courthouse -- usually the only one.
Grisham sets his story in territory he knows well, rural and small-town Mississippi, where he once practiced criminal law, did civil litigation and served as a Democratic representative in the state Legislature. In this case, the setting is a community outside Hattiesburg, where the Krane Chemical plant has been dumping carcinogenic chemicals into the water table for years and lying about it. The water is so toxic that it turns the local baseball diamond brown, and in household after household, people die of cancer. It’s a cluster of disease so striking that a national magazine dubs the area “Cancer County USA.” Krane, however, produces expert after bought-and-paid-for expert to assert that there’s nothing wrong with water so fetid that people no longer use it even to wash.
Finally, a local husband-and-wife law firm -- Wes and Mary Grace Payton -- take the case of a widow who has lost both husband and son to the toxic waste coming out of the tap. The Graces wager everything, including their home, to finance the case. By the time a jury finds in their client’s favor and awards her $41 million, the Graces are living with their two children in a run-down apartment and eating macaroni and cheese for dinner.
The verdict represents not only justice for their client but also the fee that will put them back on their feet. There is, however, still the matter of the company’s inevitable appeal. Krane’s biggest stockholder is the predatory New York billionaire Carl Trudeau, who has no intention to slip down the Forbes 400 list of the wealthiest Americans. He promises his colleagues that “not one dime of our hard-earned profits will ever get into the hands of those trailer park peasants.”
Trudeau quickly resolves that he needs more than just an appeal. For $8 million -- chump change where he comes from -- the magnate hires a crisis management cum political consulting firm. Why risk an appeal, he’s advised by a corrupt senator, when he can stack the judicial deck?
The Mississippi Supreme Court, which ultimately must hear the case, often splits 5-4 in favor of plaintiffs in similar liability cases. The consultants propose targeting the swing-voting justice in the next election and replacing her with a hand-picked, ideologically reliable jurist.
The fact that the justice up for election is a divorcee, Sheila McCarthy, who sometimes dates and is a fair-minded political moderate, makes her an attractive target. By the time the hired consultants finish with her, she’s an irreligious libertine tool of the trial lawyers who hates families and wants to confiscate everybody’s guns. Her opponent, a young, small-town lawyer named Ron Fisk, is a right-wing ideologue comfortable speaking from church pulpits. He coasts to victory.
So far, so depressing -- if realistic -- and then fate intervenes. Fisk, who has sided with the new majority in case after case denying liability verdicts, has the draft opinion striking down the decision in the Krane Chemical case sitting on his desk. It requires only his concurrence to become official. Then, the son on whom he dotes is injured and left permanently impaired by a defective product and a medical error. It’s a transformative experience, but is it enough to overcome ideology and the powerful political alliances that put him on the court?
It’s a fascinating narrative, filled with deadly accurate characterizations by an author who knows both the law and politics from the inside. The problem, as with all Grisham’s fiction, is that it’s egregiously written. In fact, from his earliest books, this is a writer who practices what might be called “post-literate fiction,” work that observes none of the conventions of traditional literary narrative. Characters arrive as if spawned from the head of Zeus, fully formed and unchanged by anything that transpires in the course of the story’s unfolding. It is, moreover, a Manichaean universe in which -- for example -- Trudeau is an unrelieved portrait of contemporary avarice and callous self-regard and the Paytons are models of weary, decent virtue. Meanwhile, pronouns float through his prose with indeterminate antecedents, and the plot clanks from point to point. The influences are to be found not in literature but in the cinema and -- more recently -- video games.
Grisham has spoken on several occasions of his regard for John Steinbeck, but his real novelistic ancestor is Upton Sinclair of “The Jungle” and “Oil!” In other words, “The Appeal” is basically agitprop -- agitprop in a couple of good causes, but agitprop nonetheless.