Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Associate

The Associate
© 2009 John Grisham
373 pages

I will admit to taking John Grisham for granted. Like old t-shirts and Star Trek, when I begin a Grisham novel I do so with the expectation that I will enjoy it. Grisham rarely disappoints. Although he is known for his legal thrillers, in recent years his new releases have been away from the courtroom. He returned to legal thrillers last year with The Appeal, but it seemed different from the novels of old and was (in my experience) reacted to negatively. Although Grisham's novels rarely end with everyone living happily ever after, the ending of The Appeal struck readers as..."wrong", somehow. It is one of the few Grisham books that I didn't really enjoy -- but with The Associate, Grisham has returned to a similar style.

This book, like most Grisham novels, is written in the third-person. The book's main character is Kyle McAvoy, the son of a small-town lawyer who has little interest in making a career out of working for big-league Wall Street lawyers. The book begins one night at a community basketball game, at which McAvoy is coaching. As he watches the game and yells at the kids, he sees a rather obvious man watching him -- a man dressed in the apparel of a government agent. Unnerved, he tries to leave the gym after the game via a back entrance, but is apprehended regardless. The man -- a "Bennie Wright" -- asks Kyle for ten minutes of his time.

Kyle soon realizes that Bennie holds power over him -- evidence that links him and three of his friends to rape allegations from their early college days. While Kyle is perfectly innocent, the evidence shown to Kyle makes him realize that there is a very real possibility two of his friends aren't, and that their indiscretion may ruin him. Bennie knows Kyle's fear, and exploits it: in return for a guarantee that there will never be a trial about this issue, Bennie wants Kyle to accept a job at a major Wall Street law firm and gather information for him. Kyle is thus stuck between Scylla and Charybdis: he can risk the ruin of his name by helping Bennie and violating his future clients' trust, or he can risk the ruin of his name by allowing the federal investigation to go on. Neither are attractive possibilities, but the latter ruin is far more likely than the former.

Even as Kyle bites the bullet, he learns that Bennie is not who he claims to be. There is something far greater going on here than an FBI investigation: defense contractors are going to (legal) war with one another over the design and production rights of a major piece of military equipment. Not only are the investments of the United States government at risk, but there are foreign governments like China, Russia, and Israel willing to interfere in the trial -- and Kyle is being made to take part in this madness, to help unknown people by stealing information from his law firm and delivering it to his handlers.

Kyle, knowing unpleasant things are bound to happen to him if he just passively cooperates, begins planning his extrication from the situation he's been trapped in from the very start. Although the book is primarily about him, Grisham occasionally gives the reader a rest from Kyle and follows Baxter Tate -- the alleged rapist -- instead. Tate's problems with alcohol and descent into the world of rehab and relapse provide occasional breaks for the reader and eventually connect to Kyle's problems.

The case of the lacrosse players from Duke entered into my mind, and I would wager that their trial in 2006 gave Grisham inspiration. The book is somewhat similar to The Firm in that a brilliant young antagonist quickly finds himself stuck between two impossible-to-accept scenarios, who has to find his own way out of the mess. The book's ending chapters were pretty gripping for me, although I did have a "Wait, really? That's it?" moment at its final conclusion. It's almost as if the ending isn't properly realized. The book doesn't have the "untold story" quality of The King of Torts or the criticism of The Street Lawyer or The Rainmaker, but it was pretty enjoyable for me all in all.

(Please note that The Associate is not a prequel to The Partner.)

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