Book Review: The Street Lawyer
As someone who happily commends books that are widely considered to be trash as classics of their genre, you might be surprised to learn that I too have some guilty pleasures. Among them you will find fairy tale style fantasy and its modern-day counterpart, the legal drama. In both genres, evil is punished and good prevails through use of clever trickery and quick wits. In both genres we are left with a tidily wrapped up story with a bow on top. Just as I would not expect kissing a frog in real life would produce a prince, neither would I expect that the legal system would ever be used for anything valiant or that the loopholes that clever lawyers find would ever be used for anything except protecting the wealthy from their just punishment. But the lie is soothing and the shape of the story is comforting, no matter how predictable it becomes.
Which brings me to John Grisham, a lawyer turned author who somehow made more money as the latter. His output has been almost exclusively books about lawyers and as such I expected some clever twists and turns. As I am in desperate need of a happy ending, I picked out his novel “The Street Lawyer” in which a high flying corporate lawyer packs in his job to start working to help the homeless of Washington DC. I expected it to be trite, I expected there to be a moment where he clashed with his former employers, who were of course the legal counsel to slum lords and the super wealthy, and I expected to discover another hugely popular author that I could turn to for some brain-soothing nonsense. Two out of three isn’t bad.
I am a big proponent of utilitarian prose, you can see me praising it whenever a certain young author by the name of Stephen King comes up in conversation, but Grisham’s goes beyond tight and into bland. Events are laid out in order and the story is told with a clean precision that I find myself jealous of, but there is no poetry to his writing, there is no voice in the characters and the closest that the book comes to tension is when random events strike down the protagonist and we are supposed to be surprised. I know that everyone jokes about lawyers having no soul, but this book genuinely read a lot like American Psycho, with scenes of the hero fretting that his Lexus is going to get damaged while he is working in a soup kitchen and describing himself as a saint. The sociopathy of the characters is present throughout and it genuinely did not seem to be an artistic choice on the part of the author so much as the limit of his understanding.
There are elements of a thriller and a mystery within this book. The former fails due to the startling lack of tension and the latter fails because the answer to the core question is answered within minutes. It appears so early in the book that I don’t even feel that there is any spoiling involved in saying that the big corporate law-firm were involved in shady dealings that hurt the homeless. That spoils as much of the story as saying that The Hobbit has a hobbit in it. If either the mystery or the thriller were in the least bit engaging, I would probably have given the rest of this book a pass and chalked up the bare-bones prose to a desire for pacing. Instead we are left with a book that is written like a statement of events, characters that could easily be replaced by potted plants without having much impact on the plot and a plot so linear that it makes ruled paper jealous. The Street Lawyer commits the cardinal sin of entertainment, it is boring.