The Street Lawyer
by John Grisham
Published by Doubleday
348 pages, 1998
Buy it online
Grisham’s Social Statement?
Reviewed by Linda L. Richards
It seems likely that many fans of John Grisham's work will not be crazy about his latest book, The Street Lawyer. It's not that it isn't good -- it is. But it's very different from earlier works in some fairly important ways.
Like most of Grisham's tales, law-American-style is the sub-text of The Street Lawyer. Once again we're shown some of the inner workings of a successful U.S. law firm in a sometimes less-than-admirable light. But the law in The Street Lawyer -- and here's the part that fans might not take to -- takes a back seat to some very human drama and some completely serious issues.
The story revolves around Michael Brock: a 32-year-old lawyer on the fast track to success with one of America's top law firms. Brock has it all: a brain surgeon wife, a $2500 a month Georgetown apartment, a Lexus and a plush office where he spends most of his time. A partnership in the firm and the possibility of earning millions is well within sight.
In the expresslane to success, Brock is derailed by a simple incident that changes his life. He and eight other lawyers are held hostage by a homeless man who is looking for the "evictors".
The man -- "call me Mister" -- makes no demands for the lawyer's release, but wants to know how much money each made the previous year and how much of it they gave to charity: specifically, charity that will benefit those without enough to eat.
"Total contributions of one hundred eighty thousand."
"I don't want total contributions. Don't put me and my people in the same class with the symphony and the synagogue, and all your pretty white folks clubs where you auction wine and autographs and give a few bucks to the Boy Scouts. I'm talking about food. Food for hungry people who live here in the same city you live in. Food for little babies. Right here. Right in this city, with all you people making millions, we got little babies starving at night, crying 'cause they're hungry. How much for food?"
He was looking at me. I was looking at the papers in front of me. I couldn't lie.
Though Brock is convinced that Mister doesn't actually intend to hurt anyone, outside the board room where they are held, the world is treating it is a hostage situation and -- ultimately -- Mister is killed by a sniper and the lawyer's lives go back to normal. Except for Brock, who discovers that nothing will ever be the same again.
Within two weeks Brock has given up the fast track to become a lawyer for street people: a voice, he is told, for those who don't have one. In the process his wife leaves him and takes most of his assets, he loses the Lexus and -- in the course of getting to the bottom of Mister's "Who are the evictors?" -- Brock even gets on the wrong side of the law itself.
Being Grisham, there is an element of made-for-TV about The Street Lawyer. There is nothing ethereal about the characters: nothing that couldn't be nailed nicely into a tight script. But it's an engaging story: one that holds the reader's interest and doesn't wrap anything in too predictable a package.
Grisham's depiction of the homeless is tight enough to indicate a fair amount of close research. Nor does the author fall into the trap of overworking the heart-rending aspects of the story, which would have been a fair temptation. Instead, Grisham's story is filled with pathos and a wondrous understanding: especially for one who was once a nasty ol' lawyer himself:
The homeless are close to the streets, to the pavement, the curbs and gutters, the concrete, the litter, the sewer lids and fire hydrants and wastebaskets and bus stops and storefronts. They move slowly over familiar terrain, day after day, stopping to talk to each other because time means little, stopping to watch a stalled car in traffic, a new drug dealer on a corner, a strange face on their turf. They sit on their sidewalks hidden under hats and caps and behind drugstore sunshades, and like sentries they observe every movement. They hear the sounds of the street, they absorb the odors of diesel fumes from city buses and friend grease from cheap diners. The same cab passes twice in an hour and they know it. A gun is fired in the distance, and they know where it came from. A fine auto with Virginia or Maryland plates is parked at the curb, they'll watch it until it leaves.
A cop with no uniform waits in a car with no markings, and they see it.
The suspense and tight drama that readers of earlier Grisham novels lapped up like so much honeyed milk is absent from The Street Lawyer. And though this is not an inferior novel, it reads more like a Jerry Maguire than a Firm or a Pelican Brief. A feel-good movie with masculine themes; a Fried Green Tomatoes for guys. And while there's nothing wrong with that -- maybe even something wonderfully right -- it's a bet that at least some Grisham fans will be annoyed. | August 7, 1998
is the editor of January Magazine.