The Street Lawyer by John Grisham
Thriller (1998 - 449 pp.)
The Street Lawyer is John Grisham's ninth book. Its main character, Michael Brock, is a young antitrust lawyer who has a change of heart after almost being shot by a crazed homeless man. He leaves his 800-lawyer firm to work in a poverty law clinic where he can help the homeless, learning from a poverty law veteran named Mordecai Green. Brock's marriage is falling apart, the streets of Washington DC are frigid in February, and Brock's old firm is after him. I won't spoil any more.
The most convincing parts of the story are Brock's divorce and the homeless shelter scenes. Brock and his wife Claire have numerous tense interactions, such as when Brock first broaches the subject of leaving his old firm (137-139), but the reader gets to see that she still cares about him when he's in the hospital. (190) Sadly, Grisham abandons the divorce storyline, with Claire mentioned only in passing for about the last half of the book. Brock's new love interest Megan isn't developed nearly enough to properly replace Claire in the story.
The homeless shelters and soup kitchens are tougher for me to envision than romantic tension but I got a feel for how they might look and who might be there. Brock visits a few, first alongside Green, then on his own. Brock feeding a four-year old boy in one of his first soup kitchen visits is one of the book's more touching passages. Brock's interview of Paul Pelham (237-242) is loony but entertaining, like quite a few parts of the book.
The lack of realism doesn't bother me; if I wanted a realistic legal story, I'd simply ask a lawyer about his/her practice. My disbelief ceased being suspended a few times, though. One is that Brock is able to practise poverty law so quickly. He appears to have spent his entire career to that point in antitrust, yet the 14th Street Legal Clinic has him practise family law, social security law, and even do a personal bankruptcy. Bankruptcy law especially is so technical most lawyers wouldn't be able to practise it. In the real world, Brock would have to report himself to the proper licensing authority. This is inexplicably never discussed.
The writing is sometimes great, sometimes poor, and usually a bit above average. The Street Lawyer is a page-turner, as advertised. Grisham's description of the initial action scene kept me wanting to know what would happen to characters I'd never seen before. The emotional climate of the conference room - "If the nine of us had a vote, Rafter would be the first sacrificial lamb. Eight to one."* (7) - shows Brock's ability to stay witty under (literal) fire. Nonetheless, adjectives and adverbs are sometimes used where storytelling would have been better, and Grisham is a good enough storyteller to make those moments interesting. A line like "she seemed perfectly content sitting in my chair" (260) doesn't say what seeming perfectly content entails. Is she smiling? Maybe looking around the room, considering she isn't that familiar with this office? Why is she "seeming", rather than simply being, perfectly content? There are also a few hackneyed phrases, such as "greasing the skids", (55) "spellbound" (237) and "in full swing". (267) For all the variance in quality of Grisham's writing throughout the book, the last line is a great one: "I didn't dare think of the future; the past was still happening." (449)
The only moderately educational aspect of The Street Lawyer consists of basic facts like how many lawyers work at big firms and what they made back in 1998, which areas of law a poverty law clinic might practice, and so on. This book is well-suited for a flight.
Ease of Reading: 10
Educational Content: 2
*This musing really has a "Case of the Speluncean Explorers" bent. I wouldn't be surprised if Grisham's read it.