Tuesday, 21 April 2009

“The Associate”, John Grisham

London Heathrow Terminal 2 has almost no redeeming features, even the bookshop being something of a tawdry ill organised affair. It does however provide airport exclusives, which always have a certain appeal, and the usual two for 20 pounds deal means there's scope for a degree of adventurism in book choice. John Grisham's probably not much of an adventure, but given the patchy response to some of his recent work, picking up “The Associate” wasn't the no-brainer that other book purchases have been.

Through 2005 I went through my first real Grisham phase, raiding charity shops across South London in search of battered copies, and accepting their basic formulaic nature, predominantly found it a rewarding enough way to while away a few hours. “The Associate” in no way is a departure from the common basic theme that has served Grisham well in the past, the tale of the idealistic young lawyer, corrupted by law's misapplication, leading to ultimate redemption, surrendering the trappings of richness for a more wholesome approach to life.

A small area of differentiation in “The Associate” is that the protagonist, Kyle McAvoy, is a flawed character to start with and initially it is hard to warm to him – the skeletons in his closet aren't particularly pleasant, and his protestations that he wants to go and earnestly work on behalf of immigrants in Virginia rings a touch false. These flaws in his character make plausible the hook whereby he is blackmailed and pushed into the Wall St corporate law he claims to be trying to avoid.

The hidden manipulators pulling McAvoy's strings are more faceless than usual, and this actually adds a lot to the book. The murkiness of their motive, and the fact that many elements with them are left unresolved avoids the book being too pat. Grisham performs at his best building a sense of menace surrounding 'Bennie' and his ability to reach into people's lives, and by leaving much unwritten, allows the reader the readily fill in the blanks quite possibly more effectively than a more detailed description might allow for.

Where Grisham falls down a touch is in his description of the central legal case that drives the plot. While in actual fact this is largely inconsequential, the complex defence contract giving rise to the enormous controversial lawsuit of interest to 'Bennie' doesn't ring true and has the feel of an author out of their depth and struggling to explain it. This is in direct contrast to the aplomb with which Grisham has handled subjects like tobacco and firearms in previous works.

Reading John Grisham seldom offers much encouragement towards a legal career, and “The Associate”, more than usual, paints a very bleak picture of the profession. The reality of legal life beyond the large salaries and luxurious public facing rooms is shown to be tawdry, venal, and thoroughly unappealing.

“The Associate” has been likened Grisham's breakthrough work, “The Firm”, and particularly feels like a filmscript in waiting. McAvoy should be easy to cast, there are clear acts and scenes that could readily transition to screen, and critically the book is brief enough to not have to be cut to shreds to fit it into a two hour window offered by Hollywood.

Written with possibly more than half an eye on the screen adaptation, “The Associate” isn't a great book. It's very linear, the majority of the characters are shallow and undeveloped, and the plot fairly simple. While I'm firmly of the opinion that 'twists' are not obligatory in fiction, the absence of one here is felt. To a reader familiar with Grisham this is a very predictable work and few surprises are encountered on the way. That said, while it lasts it's an engaging read. Started as the plane pushed back at Frankfurt airport on Friday, it was well on its way by the time Heathrow was reached, and readily completed by the end of the weekend. This doesn't however mask the fact that ultimately “The Associate” is a forgettable book. I am under no illusions that it will quickly be recycled back to a charity shop, and in a few months time it will be a struggle to differentiate it from most of Grisham's other work. Having recently read Gimenenz's “Common Lawyer” one can't help thinking that the position of pre-eminent legal thriller writer might have shifted.

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