By Ray Sawhill
Reading the bestselling novels of the young ex-lawyer John Grisham is like being privy to the conversations ambitious middle-Americans have with themselves. I’ve never read any fiction, including porn, romance novels and comic books, that’s so completely unself-aware, and I’ve never read a writer who’s less aware of his effects. He’s the Dan Quayle of novelists. His books are strangers to such concerns as shape, theme, character, and form; there’s nothing in them to wrestle with in the way of meaning.
It’s fiction for people who don’t normally read fiction by a guy who isn’t much drawn to it himself, except as a business proposition — as an effort to score a bonanza. But the books don’t seem to be experienced as cynical by his fans. (Is it because they too understand the world largely as a mass of business propositions?) His novels are for and of a world where making it is everything. Reading them is a little like watching game shows, except his novels are for people with college educations rather than working-class people. Grisham offers a little suspense, a little sexual temptation, and some money-and-job details to relate to.
The guy isn’t a genre craftsman, and the books aren’t exactly formula novels. At the same time, these suspense novels are an entertaining treasure trove of unwitting Dadaism. But where Dada was European and sophisticated, this is homegrown and inadvertent. The Dadaists were conscious artists purveying an idea of the unconscious. Grisham’s books are the unconscious. They don’t exactly express the ambivalent feelings many Americans have towards sophistication, but those feelings are certainly in them.
Grisham’s novels — he has written four so far and more than 19 million copies are in print — are full of scrambled syntax and crazy names, but there’s nothing of the puzzle-maker about him as a writer, and there’s nothing in the books that’s meant to be broken down or analyzed. Relationships dart in and out of the narrative frame in a way that, without meaning to, recalls Queneau. “Klickman was a meathead with little finesse,” the narrator of Grisham’s new novel “The Client” (Doubleday) tells us. Two pages later, the main character, an 11-year-old boy, apparently struck by what a great word choice the narrator made, begins a lecture to Klickman (a cop) this way: “Let me tell you something, meathead.” Within another couple of pages, the narrator, evidently pleased the 11-year-old enjoyed the word “meathead,” takes to calling the cop “Meathead Klickman.”
Listen to the Grisham narrator:
- “Mo had at least four guns either on him or within reach.”
- “He paced around the office as if in deep thought.”
- “His screaming lungs were almost audible.”
- “At some point, about halfway to the jet, Mark stopped.”
Sentences like these can really get you thinking: If the narrator doesn’t know, who does?
The idioms the narrator uses often seem to come from Mars. One character “cracks his window so he could breathe.” Another “cuts his eyes in all directions.” A singer in a black church opens her “vast mouth” and out flows “a deep, rich, mellow river of glorious a capella.”
At times you find yourself wondering if Grisham is trying to compete with Lewis Carroll:
“The name’s Reggie, okay.”
“Sure, Reggie. Listen, K.O. just brought me up to date.”
Even allowing for some attempts at comic characterization and for how eccentric names can be in the south, Grisham has the most topsy-turvy ear for character names imaginable. Nearly all are like something S.J. Perelman invented for a Marx Brothers movie: Cat Bruster, L. Winston Lotterhouse, Gavin Verheek, Gray Grantham, Fletcher Coal, Denton Voyles, Eric East, Clint Van Hooser, Smith Keen, Hinky Myrick, Mason Paypur, Willis Upchurch, Paul Gronke, Emmitt Waycross, Norma Thrash, Link Dole, Dr. Wilbert Rodeheaver.
In “The Client,” Grisham outdoes even himself in the name department, showing a completely inexplicable fondness for names with repeating letters: Boyd Boyette, Roy Foltrigg, Reggie Love, Penny Patoula, Chester Tanfill, Walter Deeble, Slick (Mole) Moeller, Marcia Riggle, Omar Noose. In a virtuoso touch, a few characters win names with double sets of double letters: Wally Boxx, Barry Muldanno, Skipper Scherff.
When a couple of thugs hole up at a Radisson Hotel, it certainly seems like the right place for them. And when you learn that the lead character adores pizza, you’re relieved — it’s the right food for him. If you look for a Nabokovian pattern of linguistic playfulness here, you won’t find one. You end up wondering: is this a tick that comes from Grisham’s years in Mississippi and Tennessee? The names contribute to sentences that really leave you cross-eyed: “He had an escort of sorts with Wally and Fink and agents Trumann and Scherff.”
When Grisham sets out to provide detail and atmosphere, what he achieves goes past the Hemingwayesque into pure corporate-speak. “The lights were bright and the carpet was clean.” “A minister of some generic faith appeared.” “His voice was loud, yet warm. His words were educated, yet colloquial.” “Deacons danced. Elders chanted. Women fainted.”
Reading his novels all at once, you turn up gems for the auteurists. Why, in three of the four novels, is there a black character — always a different one — whose first name is Roosevelt? In “The Client,” as in his other books, Grisham seems drawn to backsides: “Slow on his ass”; “He shifted his wide ass”; “Wally perched his tiny butt”; “He followed her, watching her wide rear end” — all these appear, in the narrator’s voice, within twenty pages of each other. In the first two pages of one chapter we get: “the screaming and ass-chewing had ended hours ago. He’d have the pleasure of busting her ass.”
Grisham’s storytelling is so methodical his novels sometimes have the minimalist fascination of those repetitious passages in Beckett where a character moves stones from one pocket to another. At these moments, the books seem more akin to office supply catalogues than to traditional fiction.
I don’t know what to make of the fact that the main character has gotten younger in each of the books. In “A Time to Kill,” he’s a lawyer in his early thirties; in “The Firm” he’s a new hiree; in “The Pelican Brief” it’s a woman law student. In “The Client” it’s the 11-year-old boy. Is there anything to make of this? Grisham’s scrambled narrative voice — a potpourri of steals from movies and TV shows, premature wise-guy cynicism and self-pity — and the main characters do synch up a little better in “The Client” than in the earlier books.
But it’s almost impossible to understand what the central plot of the novel is. The setup is clear: a mob lawyer is trying to commit suicide. The boy tries to foil him. Drunk and morose, the mob guy tells the kid where a dead senator’s body has been buried, then manages to do himself in. But the rest of the book! The only thing that keeps it from shutting down entirely is that the boy can’t decide whether or not to tell anyone his secret.
That said, it’s easy to understand why, when you board a plane and walk to your seat, you see so many businesspeople reading a Grisham novel. The books are guileless expressions of America’s middle class. They aren’t middle America as seen and expressed by an artist; they’re middle America entertaining itself. A Grisham novel is cousin to those catalogues you find in the seat pockets of airplanes advertising desk accessories, leather business-card holders, fold-up luggage carts, pool floats and dopey gifts for the kids.
It’s bewildering, if rather sweet, in “The Firm” that the book simply assumes we’re going to identify with its main character — a nice guy, a little competitive maybe (Grisham’s concession to the fact that the guy’s actually a shark), who just wants to make money. He wants to achieve this by doing tax law, and we’re expected to say: Smart move, I can see doing that myself.
What’s on many millions of people’s minds is right there on the surface in these books. Nothing has been digested, nothing transformed. They’re as genuine and true to themselves as the work of what are usually thought of as folk artists, only the culture they issue from — middling colleges, suburbia, a couple of cars, concerns about savings plans and office politics — isn’t what we’re accustomed to thinking of as a folk culture. Even the suspense-novel frame has a middle-American purity. Grisham has spoken about learning how to do suspense from an article in Writer’s Digest: it’s a matter of lots of dialogue and action; creating a main character for people to identify with; trapping him in an evil conspiracy; closing things in around him; then getting him out.
What he puts in his books is exactly what’s in the air when you’re among hustling middle Americans. He’s one of them; he’s their boy. Here’s some of what’s in the novels:
- The desire of middle Americans to retire early to someplace sunny.
- Their attachment to seeing themselves as wised-up former idealists, although all they’ve ever really cared about is making money.
- The vindictiveness they have towards media liberals, experts, technicians — “sophisticates.”
- Their feelings of betrayal and aggrievedness. They once hoped they’d enjoy their job, and it has turned out to be a bore, and the people at the office are greedy creeps.
- The way they live well but always feel anxious about money.
- Their mixture of priggishness and lasciviousness. Even while they’re giving each other the eye, expressions of disgust — towards politicians, towards the aged — keep popping out of them.
The novel of his Grisham has said he cares most about is his first, “A Time to Kill.” The book involves his hero’s feelings about a case he has taken on: defending a black man accused of murdering two rednecks who raped his 10-year-old daughter. What Grisham’s hero feels angriest about is that he isn’t getting paid much for the case — which he has taken not because of any feelings about justice (it’s assumed we all agree that some people, in this case the rednecks, just deserve to die), but to get noticed.
He worries that the case will be stolen from him by a more famous lawyer. When it is, he berates the black prisoner for having ditched him in favor of the big-timer, and we’re expected to side with the main character in this scene — to agree that he’s being treated outrageously. He wins the case back — worrying some about the ethics of this — then blows a major part of the trial. He gets drunk. He stares at himself in the mirror. He pulls himself together for a winning, touchingly sincere final speech to the jury. (It’s perfect that Tom Cruise — master of willed ingenuousness — will be the first onscreen Grisham hero.) Our experience with novels leads us to expect “criticism” of such a hero for his inability to care about others. Here, the criticism never comes. The entire point is what he goes through to nail this case — essentially, to advance his career.
As a fantasy, this story is central to all of Grisham’s books. Sexually, what happens is: the Klan starts to make threats, and the main character sends his wife and daughter to his parents’ home. Instantly, a beautiful, liberal, intellectual, bra-less northern law student volunteers to assist on the case — she’s from Boston but is at school at Ole Miss. She buys beer and trades wiseass banter; she looks swell in her jeans (offering a fetching “rear view”). She does research — and her best to seduce the hero. She wants it; he does too. When things really warm up between them, she gets kidnapped by the Klan.
The scene where the Klan tortures her is the sexiest passage in Grisham, if you’re open to responding that way to this kind of thing. She’s tied facing a post in front of a burning cross. Her blouse, skirt and underwear are ripped from her back — bottom alert! The robed ones threaten to whip her; they chop her hair off and release her.
She’s alluring, she handles the complexities of the law more confidently than the hero can, and she’s a little too fast for him; she threatens to take him away from the mother-wife. So the Klan rises up and punishes her, because finally what she represents is “all crap” — one of Grisham’s, his narrator’s, and his characters’ favorite terms. The hero’s achievement in the novel is that he wins the case and he doesn’t fuck the northern girl.
Two key sentences appear in “A Time to Kill”: “he had never won an argument, in court or out, with an expert witness,” and “the embarrassment turned into anger.” These sentences express Grisham totally as a writer: resentment towards expertise, technique and sensitivity, and towards any perspective on his feelings about things.
The only other scene in Grisham that has any sexiness at all is in “The Firm.” The hero is in the Caymans, disapprovingly helping his boss launder some money, and (disapprovingly) watching the older man make out with young women. The hero rejects the advances of a few girls — rather nastily, as though their wanting to frolic made them disgusting. But then he has a few drinks, and a cute, mischievous girl in a bikini top and sarong lures him down the beach. They’re alone, it’s warm and the water is seductive. She unwraps the sarong and — she’s wearing not just a bikini bottom but a string/thong. He can’t resist playing with that string…For the rest of the novel he’s upset because he couldn’t resist fucking her. He wonders whether he should confess to his wife; we learn shortly that the beach girl was part of a conspiracy that’s entrapping the hero.
The central fantasy in all Grisham’s books is of being on the verge of puberty, getting a look at adulthood — yech, when that string comes off, it’s confusing, it’s disgusting — and managing to leap over it to a wonderful retirement where you still have your youth and looks. (This is adulthood as seen by a young boy: a matter of corruption, spies, conspiracies, wiretaps. The great thing is to outwit adulthood and get away with it.) Glimpsing power and sex, you return to Mom and escape with her to the sun, where bottoms are clean, plump and fresh –where they do nothing but arouse, and are wrapped up enticingly, like gifts and candies. Given that, it’s almost surreal to learn from published interviews that as many as two-thirds of Grisham’s readers are women, and also that he regrets having let his hero fuck the girl on the beach.
- Buy a copy of “The Client.”
- Francis Coppola’s film of Grisham’s “The Rainmaker” ain’t half bad. Buy a copy.
- Though many people hated it, I loved Robert Altman’s atmospheric and satirical Grisham takeoff, “The Gingerbread Man,” starring Kenneth Branagh doing a great take on Bill Clinton.
©1993 by Ray Sawhill. First appeared in The Modern Review.