Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Chamber

The Chamber
© 1994 John Grisham
676 pages

As a high school senior, my second John Grisham read resulted from rescuing a battered copy of The Chamber from my library's discard pile. The librarian warned me against reading the book, saying that it was "dark". The titular chamber is a gas chamber (formerly) used by the state of Mississippi to execute prisoners condemned to death. One such person in Grisham's world is Sam Cayhall, a longtime member of the Ku Klux Klan, convicted for taking part in the Civil Rights Movement-era bombing of a law office and the resulting death of two children. As Cayhall enters his last month of life, he is an angry old man with no friends except for his death row companions. The highlight of his life is that he has recently been able to fire his Jewish lawyers, whom he hates: he is now resigned to go to his death alone. But then a young and wholly inexperienced attorney arrives to see him, one representing his recently fired firm and one who reminds him of someone -- his son, who fled to California twenty years ago and changed his and his family's name to rid themselves of the legacy of Sam Cayhall.  This new arrival is in fact Sam's grandson, back in Mississippi after his father spirited him away as a toddler. He's come to meet his grandfather -- and to rescue him from his fate.

Although The Chamber is advertised as a legal thriller -- and although the law is a persistent element of the book -- it often fades away into background, and the dominating theme of the book is one of reconciliation. Sam and his grandson Adam must come to terms with one another and Sam's own past, for not only did his hatred destroy his and his victims' own lives, but it continues to haunt the live of his family. Adam is utterly disturbed and ashamed of his family's deep roots in the Klan, and his interest in his grandfather's reclamation is in a way an attempt to come to terms with his family's dark past. Sam is one of Grisham's more agonizing characters, initially developed as a hateful old man for whom death seems "righteous", but one who is humbled as his mortality becomes increasingly obvious. As Adam struggles to find a legal means of freeing his grandfather from Death Row or at least in postponing his execution, Sam has to make peace with himself and begins tugging on the reader's sympathy.

The Chamber is one of Grisham's better works. Like Grisham's first work, A Time to Kill, it is much more serious than his latter works which seem to be more about entertainment than  challenging the reader with a moral dilemma. I read the book initially as a very conservative high school student, one with predictable opinions on everything from abortion to the death penalty, but even then this book made me think. At nearly seven hundred pages, there's a lot here to go over, but the interpersonal conflict and theme of the book lend it easily to my reccommending it. If you give Grisham's works a pass for being too much like pop fluff, try The Chamber.

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