This section contains 1,475 words
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Critical Essay by Tom Mathews
SOURCE: "Book 'Em," in Newsweek, Vol. CXXI, No. 11, March 15, 1993, pp. 79-81.
In the following excerpt from an essay that includes commentary by Grisham, Mathews surveys Grisham's career through The Client and discusses critical response to the author's works.
Grisham is a straight arrow making his way along a very crooked path—a world of sleazy lawyers, fathead politicians and hot-dog G-men where something always stinks just below the surface of wealth and respectability. Grisham's law is as simple as Aesop and as old as Scheherazade: bore 'em and you die. In The Client his hero is Mark Sway, an 11-year-old who tries to stop a suicide only to learn a mob secret that could cost him his life. To save himself from the bad guys—and the good guys—Sway pays $1, all he has, to hire Reggie Love, 52, a street lawyer with a divorcée's past and a grandmother's soul. Dodging Mafia hoods, crazy neighbors and the police, vowing to join a health club and get in better shape if she ever gets out alive, Reggie wonders whether she is "too old for this nonsense. The things lawyers do."
It was those things that drove Grisham right into fiction. "I'm pretty cynical about the legal profession," he says. "Thrilled to be out of it." A Time to Kill, his first and best novel, is also his most autobiographical. In Jake Brigance, you find the distillation of Grisham's own experience as a small-town ham-and-egger around the De Soto County courthouse. Before an all-white jury, Brigance defends a black Viet vet who took an M-16 and blew away two crackers who raped his 10-year-old daughter. Grisham took three years to write it, getting up at 5 a.m. and scribbling in a Sparco notebook, the kind court reporters use. "My motives were pure when I wrote A Time to Kill," he says. "It's better because you can almost smell the biscuits and the eggs and the grits and hear the chatter in the Coffee Shop; the people are better, the setting is better; you can feel the sweat sticking to their shirts in the July heat around the courthouse."
But the book didn't sell, so Grisham wrote his second novel, The Firm, as "a naked stab at commercial fiction." He tells the story of Mitchell Y. McDeere, Harvard Law, seduced by an $80,000 starting salary and a black BMW into joining a top-drawer law firm that turns out to be a money laundry for the mob. Into this tale Grisham poured his own contempt for corporate lawyers in $1,200 suits who pay for their $245 Cole Haan loafers and solid-cherry desks by billing $300 an hour for 30-hour days. He wrote The Pelican Brief, partly to convince [his wife,] Renée, his most important critic, that he could invent a strong woman. When the world's deadliest terrorist bumps off two Supreme Court justices, it is left to Darby Shaw, a Tulane law student, to figure out a plot the FBI can't—and the White House won't—unravel. It's the quintessential Grisham formula: "You take some horrible, mean, vicious, nasty conspiracy over here," he says. "You put a very sympathetic hero or heroine in the middle of it, you reach a point where their lives are at stake—and you get them out of it."
Not exactly Crime and Punishment? Grisham pleads nolo contendere. He puts on no literary airs. And yet … something seems to be eating him….
"These legal thrillers are driving me nuts," he says, a confession that should give his publishers heartburn. And Oxford bookseller Richard Howorth, whose grandfather once gave Faulkner a D in English, warns literary sourpusses not to do the same with Grisham. "Anyone who dismisses Grisham as 'commercial'," he says, "is making a big mistake."…
For a writer committed to thrills, Grisham practices only safe sex in his prose. "I cannot write about sex," he confesses. At one meeting with his editor in New York, the subject came up, and Renée said, "Johnny can't write about sex. He knows very little about it." Stifling a guffaw, David Gernert, his editor, said, "Don't even try."
So readers love his books, but are they art?
"Oh, there are a few literary snots in town who take shots at me," Grisham says mildly. Vernon Chadwick, professor of English at Ole Miss, argues that the market people in Hollywood and New York have seized on Grisham to water down American culture with the Southern-novel lite. But it isn't that easy. "Marketing can do many things, but it can't just buy a mass readership," says Gary Fisketjon, an editor at Knopf. "Readers detect crassness, the wrong touch." Like trout scrutinizing a badly tied fly, they may rise, but they won't take the offering.
Given the abundance of ego and the shortage of cash among so many "real" writers, the astonishing thing is how many around Oxford, where literary matters count, are willing to speak up in Grisham's defense. "I suppose I would have been more sullen if a bad book were taken as serious literary work," says Barry Hannah, whose own Bats Out of Hell, just out from Houghton Mifflin, is superb. "I liked the way John cleared the air." Donna Tartt, the author of The Secret History, who comes from nearby Grenada, observes that Dr. Johnson believed anyone who wrote for any reason but to make money was mad.
Let's not duck the literary issue: artists do something Grisham doesn't. The artist clearly enlightens where the commercial writer entertains. Consider the case of Larry Brown, another Oxford novelist, who tried to go commercial only to wind up an artist in spite of himself. Brown was a captain in the fire department. He once hoped to make a little money moonlighting in literature. Over eight years, he wrote five novels—the first, he says, was about "sex-starved women and man-eating bears in Yellow-stone," an idea that should have turned the trick, but didn't. He also wrote 100 short stories, only to throw them all out before publishing Facing the Music, the collection that established him as one of the South's authentic new voices. In the best writing, Brown discovered, character counts more than plot. That may not have helped his bank account much; but he doesn't hold it against Grisham. "Everybody's glad for what happened to John," he says. "He paid his dues. He works harder than I do."
An astute justification of Grisham comes from Sydney Pollack, who directed the movie of The Firm. "This is a very suspicious, cynical decade," says Pollack. "All bureaucratic authorities are suspect. Part of the reason the book is so successful is you have an Everyman taken advantage of by the authorities and by the experts who are supposed to defend you against the authorities. And he beats them both." [In February 1993] Grisham told a chamber of commerce group that A Time to Kill was his best novel and that he had been going downhill ever since. "Was this wise?" wondered Hannah, for whom Grisham had inscribed a book: "To one of my heroes." The truth is that in the cluttered office Grisham calls "mission control," the only room on his spread that he won't let Renée redecorate, the place where he pins the deadline on the wall once a year, shooing out his son, Ty, 9, and his daughter, Shea, 7, for the duration, Grisham is restless.
Someone once asked him to explain the significance of the fact that where Faulkner, a complicater, invented Yoknapatawpha, Grisham, a simplifier, dreamed up Ford County in A Time to Kill. ("Give me a break," he replied.) Once upon a time, his plan was to alternate one Ford County novel with every thriller. His Ford County ideas brought hems and haws from his agent and editor. The result was a three-book contract with Doubleday that holds him to legal thrillers. Now, he says, "what I'd really like to do is just go back to Ford County and never leave."
Of course, you can't go home again and bat out a Ford County novel in six months (The Pelican Brief took 100 days, The Client six months, and both show some damage). But Grisham says he's now so rich he could write a book every five years or maybe every 10 years. He doesn't intend to get into the ring with Count Tolstoy, as Hemingway would put it, or Faulkner. His idea is just to take more time, and in the tradition of Larry Brown, pay more attention to character. Whatever the case, he has what it takes to make the change. A while ago Bill Ballard sat in his law office near The Bookworm in Hernando, writing a review of The Client for the local library. Grisham, he wrote, now enjoys what Mark Twain called "the calm confidence of a Christian holding four aces." And it's never been a good idea to bet against him.
This section contains 1,475 words
(approx. 5 pages at 300 words per page)