Over the years I’ve gone on all sorts of fiction kicks—children’s classics, Steven King’s earliest thrillers, John Steinbeck’s most popular novels—and during my earliest years of college, I hit my John Grisham kick. I’m not entirely sure why, because I’ve never had an interest in law and I’ve always been bored stiff by television courtroom dramas (Matlock excluded, of course). Perhaps it was the swell of Grisham movies during those years that caught my attention, A Time to Kill with a stellar cast, The Client about a kid not terribly younger than I, and The Pelican Brief with good ol’ Denzel. Whatever the draw, I ingested a whole lot of John Grisham tales during those years, and here are my choppy notes from the years gone by.
The Rainmaker (1995)
This was my sixth-straight Grisham novel to read, once upon a time, but from its earliest pages I can attest that it immediately became my favorite. Although this book has a bit stronger language than the others, I especially enjoyed how I could relate to the protagonist, Rudy Baylor—not that I am both incredibly gifted and lucky, but that I was just out of school, living off meager savings, and willing and happy to find a tiny garage apartment while doing yard work for a little old lady. Welcome to the life of many single, American, post-college men!
The story itself gripped me, had several surprises, but wasn’t weighed down with too many unbelievable, inhuman characters (as show up in several other Grisham novels). Judge Kipler, for example, was a special gem, for I can’t recall a single other Grisham judge who seemed almost permanently on the side of the plaintiff! Somehow it seemed like a new spin for Grisham. The love story with Kelly seemed only slightly thrown in for flavor, but it worked. As for Ms. Birdie Birdsong, well, I’m sure everyone predicts that she’ll soon enough die, leaving what meager inheritance she has to her strong, faithful lawyer, Rudy Baylor. And that just might prove to be a good happily ever after for the new history teacher.
Grisham’s style in this novel captivated me as well, at times reminding me of J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. Written first-person from the viewpoint of a young man on the run while doing his own thing, this style was at once familiar and yet also excitingly new. Overall I’d rate this book highly for its genre, and I might one day read it again.
The Street Lawyer (1998)
This book was a surprisingly quick read, somewhat out of Grisham’s style. Although he offered a full plotline and cast of characters, it felt more like Grisham merely published a long, detailed outline to the plot of a novel rather than the novel itself. He jumped from one moment to the next far too quickly. While in The Rainmaker or even in The Pelican Brief, Grisham would spend several chapters describing a single day’s events or write pages and pages detailing the filling out of documents, the methods change in The Street Lawyer. Here he’s done away with such details entirely, making this like a “Grisham for Beginners,” a court epic with training wheels, a Reader’s Digest Condensed Book. Sadly, I think this failure hurts him as an author, for by ridding his book of all jargon and outlying details, Grisham inadvertently whittles away his own authority as an author. Generally, John Grisham can draw some profound insights from life in his novels, but not here. I found myself at page 400 turning back to random previous pages, asking myself, “Have I read all this? Did I misplace my bookmark or something?” That’s not a good sign for any author.
Overall, I’d give this book a very low score. John Grisham’s generally a fantastic courtroom author, and if back in ’98 he wanted to lessen that stigma or make a new name for himself, he should have stepped away from the genre entirely (as done in A Painted House), rather than give the courtroom stuff attic space while attempting to get some other story out.
A Painted House (2001)
This was one of the only John Grisham novels that I began on the recommendation of others. Several of my friends and family had spoken highly of it, specifically that it differed greatly from all Grisham’s other court-based thrillers. From the first few pages, I had a feeling that it smacked a good deal of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, what with the southern depression feel and all (although this book is set in the 1950s not the ’20s, Grisham’s unique characters, violence, and flood do seem to channel Steinbeck at times). I was so struck by the similarities, that at one point I thought he might work out a way to end the book with an old man and a breast, but thankfully he didn’t.
The story follows a boy who fills his ordinary and otherwise boring life with special secrets: like two murders, innocent love, and a naked girl. Of course, the writing doesn’t seem at all to come from the brain of a 7-year-old, but neither certainly are the themes. I didn’t like when the kid would say or do things beyond his age or personality, like the scene where he plays a trick on his cousin’s “Yankee” wife while she’s in the outhouse—that whole scene seemed out of place, out of character, and wholly unnecessary. Regarding the unique characters, I especially enjoyed the man who paved the road, for the whole persona and episode seemed like a true-life flashback for Grisham, though with the monkey and all, obviously embellished.
Overall, A Painted House was a good story, though I would far rather re-read Grapes of Wrath before picking this book up again. Nevertheless, I’d recommend it as a good story for escape.
The Summons (2002)
This was another fine quick read, about as fast as The Street Lawyer yet far more entertaining. This book was more of a mystery than Grisham’s other novels, making it very easy to stick with. At one point during while reading this book, in fact, I recall recognizing with what ease I could zip through his books, causing me to question at what-grade level he writes. I concluded that, despite his themes, the grade-level must be low.
Regarding the story, Ray appeared to be more heartless than most of Grisham’s other protagonists. While he may be able to justify that he’s simply writing true humanity, he tends to focus here almost entirely here on human weakness, and such a focus can’t be good for a reader’s own thinking. Readers often want someone they can relate to, a good-hearted person, despite his problems—someone more like Rudy Baylor of The Rainmaker. Ray just isn’t that guy.
Overall, while I enjoyed the story—a mystery I never figured out as I read, because I never try—I wasn’t a big fan of the character.
The Broker (2005)
This little read made me feel like I was on a trip to Italy, though it seems like the entire time spent there had nothing to do with the plot as a whole. Joel Backman enjoyed the coffee and restaurants and walking the streets, but since he never planned on getting back to Italy with the girl, it all seems like plastic scenery in a sterile play. Quite clearly, John Grisham took a trip to Italy in preparation for this book, but he seems only to have added his experiences to an already-formed plot without much thought as to seemlessness, so that hurt the book’s authenticity.
Three major questions jumped out at me as I read, and so I share them here:
1) How, with all their international expertise, were these professional killers unable to kill a guy transplanted into a country and culture he doesn’t even know.
2) Luigi’s character was a good foil, but the reader knows so little about him—he’s a guide and a pal, but he watches Joel’s every move? What’s his position, job, affiliation? It’s never made clear.
3) Then this Chinese assassin (should have been from a scarier, more violent country than passive China…like Israel or Russia or something): he is such an expert as his deadly trade, but he can’t pull off this simple job? Every time Joel Backman ordered room service, I expected a murder or at least an attack, but nothing. He gets away without facing really an ounce of real danger!
Overall, the book read well enough, but for these massive holes in its plot. My wife picked up the book 5 minutes after I was done, but I recommended she not waste the time. I’ll recommend the same here.