“The law beckoned her. The law, as portrayed in film and on television as nonstop excitement. The law, as cornerstone of democracy and the front lines for so many social conflicts,” writes John Grisham in his latest novel “The Associate,” giving neat definition to the twin allure of a subject he knows inside and out.
As a society we’re obsessed by the law and its promise and its uncertainties. We know that law does not equal justice, that the law often serves a corporate or political master. Yet we long for situations to be resolved, even from the compromised mess, and out of this desire arises our taste for the legal thriller, whose most successful practitioner is John Grisham. The law, by its nature, creates drama, and a new Grisham promises us an inside look at the dirty machineries of process and power, with plenty of entertainment and an ending that will appeal to Hollywood.
Kyle McAvoy, the hero of “The Associate,” recalls Mitch McDeere from Grisham’s breakout novel “The Firm.” He’s young, idealistic, handsome, a little too cocky for his own good, but a brilliant lawyer who gets pulled in over his head and given an education in how the world really works. In the case of “The Firm,” the bad guys were the Mob, who controlled an apparently upright law firm.
Here, the heavies are at the service of a big defense contractor -- times have changed. Our idea of a really sinister character these days is somebody who does dirty work for the likes of Halliburton, not Vito Corleone.
About to graduate from Yale Law School, where he edits the law journal, Kyle aims to spend the first years of his professional life “in a legal aid position helping migrant workers.” But he’s in a book by John Grisham, not John Steinbeck, so one night he’s hauled off the street and taken to a Holiday Inn by men claiming to be from the FBI. There, at the hotel, he’s interrogated by a man calling himself Bennie Wright, a cop from Pittsburgh -- apparently. “Wright was in his late forties, short, trim, bald with a few strands of black hair slicked back just over his ears. His eyes were also black and partially concealed behind a pair of reading glasses perched halfway down his narrow nose,” Grisham notes, and the reading glasses are a nice touch -- this guy needs neither gun nor baseball bat.
Wright confronts Kyle with recorded evidence of a dirty incident, a supposed date rape to which Kyle was a witness, and warns that he’s under indictment. Then comes the twist. Wright reveals that he’s no cop and his goons aren’t with the FBI; but Kyle’s life will still be trashed unless he accepts another job he’s been offered, a $200,000-a-year associateship with the mighty Scully & Pershing, a Wall Street law firm soon to be a key player in a multibillion-dollar lawsuit. “The core of the dispute was the latest Pentagon boondoggle to build the B-10 HyperSonic Bomber, a space-age aircraft that had been dreamed about for decades and was now closer to becoming a reality,” Grisham writes. Wright orders Kyle to become part of Scully & Pershing’s litigation department and hand over information key to the case.
Kyle moves to Manhattan, knowing that he’s under constant surveillance. He fights back, picking up tradecraft by reading spy novels (a detail that owes something, surely, to the Sydney Pollack spy thriller “Three Days of the Condor”), making life more difficult for Wright. Kyle enlists the aid of fellow students who were also involved in the alleged rape, trying to get to the bottom of what really happened that long-ago drunken night, hoping that discovery of the truth will provide a way out of his bind.
Grisham sets up a separate story strand, perhaps the most effective part of the book, in which one of Kyle’s friends, a spoiled trust-fund kid named Baxter Tate, struggles to come to terms with his alcoholism and guilt. It’s Baxter, not Kyle, who soon finds himself in deadly jeopardy.
Most of the book is set in Manhattan, not that you’d really know it. Grisham’s gifts aren’t for description or evocation of place: “The restaurant had twenty tables, a Turkish menu, and no dress requirement, though jeans were preferred. After the two-star review by the Times, the place was crowded.” The prose, colorless at best, goes on to chime a hideously cracked bell. “A platter of olives and goat cheese arrived, and they toyed with it.”
Nobody goes to Grisham for style, and there’s a sense here of a skilled craftsman cranking it out on autopilot. Nothing much happens, and when it happens, it’s pretty predictable. Grisham’s Kyle is cardboard-thin (Scott Turow has a much defter hand with character), but Grisham is an effective lens through which we observe the intricacies of corporate law, an easily corruptible world governed, not by right and wrong, but by the concept of the billable hour. “They had been trained to treat billing as the most important aspect of the practice. Pick up a file, look at the clock. Make a phone call, record the time. Sit through a meeting, count the minutes. Every hour had to be accounted for, and the billing was done on the spot. It was never to be delayed, and it had to be precise,” Grisham writes, hitting a punchier rhythm. “If we’re going to guess here, let’s be damned sure we land on the high side.”
“The Associate” springs to angry life from time to time, but on the whole it’s by the numbers, a plodding page-turner. But it’s still a page-turner: Many of Grisham’s legions of fans will doubtless sign up for this latest ride, eager to see how Kyle McAvoy manages to get himself out of the hole. With ideals restored, Grisham ensures, making Kyle an appealing model for our troubled new time.