Island, 1998, 452 pages, C$11.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-440-29565-3
Oh, that wily John Grisham. That clever, manipulative, populist, puppy-like John Grisham. No wonder why he’s said to be one of the nicest guys in the business. No wonder why he sells books by the truckload. No wonder why he’s been at the top of the game for ten years.
A flat description of The Street Lawyer would make you shake your head in sorrow: It’s about a young lawyer! Who rebels against the system! And sues big bad corporations on behalf of the people! And fights crime! It’s like all the other John Grisham novels ever published so far! It’s packed with coincidences, familiar plot structures and an ending you can see coming from half the book away! Plus, it’s written with short sentences and a vocabulary of less than a thousand words: it’s guaranteed to be understandable by 95% of reading-age Americans!
But boy, does it work.
Forget your yearnings for fine literature, break out that Nietzsche dust jacket you use to camouflage your commuting reading and jump head-first in The Street Lawyer. You will know within pages if this is going to be a good ride.
It certainly starts on a high note, as our young lawyer protagonist is taken hostage by a homeless man with a grudge against his legal firm. The siege soon ends thanks to the timely intervention of a sniper, but the impact lingers on for our protagonist who, thanks to a hideous series of coincidences we rarely see outside the movies, finds himself divorced, laid-off and somewhat on the run. Tell no one, but The Street Lawyer is a keenly disguised mainstream novel about a character undergoing a major life crisis: dissatisfied by his money-grubbing career, he descends through society to find himself helping the poor through his mad legal skillz. A street lawyer is born, but this being a Grisham novel, you can bet that there’s a major civil lawsuit just waiting to make an appearance. Will our hero find a way to stick it to the man, help improve his city and find love in entirely expected places? Well of course: we wouldn’t have it any other way.
The Street Lawyer is a cleverly manufactured book that gives us exactly what we expect, and it’s hard to disrespect something like that. Every step of the character’s changing life is carefully telegraphed, described and significant: If it takes a random car accident to make sure that the protagonist finds himself painted in a corner, well, why not? But what could have been exasperating in the hands of a different writer here comes across as par for the course. The attraction of the book is not in its conclusion, but in the way it hits the appropriate beats with exact timing.
It helps a lot that the writing is so crisp. Many of Grisham’s contemporaries could learn from the way he shapes his scenes and consciously avoids any stylistic flourish: the non-nonsense first-person narration echoes The Rainmaker, while the interest in an odd corner of the law (here, lawyers for the very poor) recalls his previous Runaway Jury (though without the intensity of that previous work.) Here again, we find dozens of small and telling details about the life of an everyday lawyer, bolstered with eloquent pleas in favour of greater social equality. (But not too eloquent: In a telling scene, the protagonist finds himself commiserating with a homeless man whose life story suggests that homelessness can happen to anyone… only to find that he’s a fake.)
Compared to previous Grisham novels, The Street Lawyer fits comfortably in the middle of the pack: It doesn’t have the clockwork elegance of The Partner, but remains more polished than Grisham’s first few books. What’s obvious, though, is that Grisham will have a long and successful career as long as he can keep delivering books like this one. The point is not that he’s better than other writers working in the same field (you and I can both name at least a dozen authors who somehow “deserve” as much success), but that he can deliver what’s expected of him, year after year. As far as I’m concerned, this is another successful entry in Grisham’s post-Runaway Jury revival: Expect more reviews of his books here, continuing with The Kings of Torts.