The Rainmaker, John Grisham

Island, 1995, 598 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-440-22165-X

At his best, John Grisham delivers a satisfactory re-telling of his favourite story (“Young southern lawyer fights evil organization”) but never strays too far away from it. It’s a good niche, when you think of it: there’s regional colour, a crowd-pleasing plot, solid movie material and the potential for a sympathetic hero. (There are worse ways to earn a living than being a best-selling author.) But the real fun starts when Grisham starts playing tricks and variations on his familiar elements: Often, those quirks and structural choices can become the central point of interest of a book.

Nowhere else in Grisham’s oeuvre so far is this truer than in The Rainmaker, an obvious David-against-Goliath story whose courtroom component is one of the most lop-sided legal contest you’ll ever encounter in legal fiction. If the courtroom drama was the main focus of the book, we’d have a problem justifying the existence of The Rainmaker as a piece of fiction. But it’s not. For better of for worse, Grisham has other things in mind for the novel, and I’m not sure they all fit together.

The break from Grisham’s other books is obvious from the first page: For the first time in his career, Grisham uses first-person narration (present-tense, no less) to tell the story of one Rudy Baylor, a law student about to graduate. At the beginning of the story, most things seem to be running in Rudy’s favour: He’s got cash-flow problems, sure, but he’s also weeks away from a job with a well-regarded law firm. But then the hammer falls. In short order, Rudy loses the job, files for bankruptcy, moves out of his apartment and finds himself with next to no prospects. Still, he’s got a file in his hand, a civil suit that just may be worth millions…

Plot-wise, Rudy’s fight with the eeevil insurance company of Great Benefit Life is one of the most one-sided contest you’ll ever read. Sure, it’s the whole single-David against corporate-Goliath fight again, but Grisham stacks the deck so ridiculously in favour of his populist protagonist that the courtroom becomes the vicarious blooding of an easy target. Rudy’s corporate opponents make every mistake in the book, and face the added difficulty of having the facts against them. Rudy, on the other hand, has a sympathetic jury, a friendly judge, two or three dirty tricks up his sleeve and some killer pieces of evidence. It’s not much of a contest, and not much of a drama either (though it makes for cheerful reading).

If that was all there was to The Rainmaker, there wouldn’t be much point in going on. But there’s more. You could argue that the real point of the novel isn’t the insurance case, but the portrait of a young lawyer during difficult times. Rudy doesn’t come from a good family, can’t depend on a trust fund and doesn’t display prodigious legal abilities. But he works hard, never gives up and scrapes by on the strength of his conviction. The first-person narration is an ideal vehicles for the elliptical asides, the showy supporting characters and the day-to-day drudgery of being a working lawyer. Tasty stuff; fans of Grisham’s other thrillers won’t be surprised to learn that this novel is as compelling as Grisham’s previous onces. Set aside some free time to make your way through this one.

Still, the novel is also filled with loose ends and choices that don’t ring true. A number of those things (a mysterious fire, for instance) seem to be kept in reserve for a final revelation that, ultimately, never comes. All, including a romance, seems rushed and crammed in an ending that doesn’t conclude as much as it gives up and throws everything back onto the table in desperation. Conscious choices by Grisham, I’m sure, but the purpose of which still has me dubious: Sure, part of it is an attempt to subvert Grisham’s own favourite story… but the way it’s handled seems just as contrived as the one-sided courtroom theatrics.

But don’t let that stop you from grabbing a copy of The Rainmaker. Grisham devotees will note the blueprint of The Runaway Jury buried deep in The Rainmaker, what with the emphasis on civil suits and the passing mention of jury consultants. But even readers without an encyclopedic knowledge of Grisham’s fiction will be so completely swept along by the narration that the book’s problems will hardly register. And that’s a trick that sets the magicians apart from the other authors, whether or not they’re telling their favourite story all over again.

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