I'm by no means a John Grisham completist or anything, but on the occasion of getting ready to dip into SYCAMORE ROW, the sequel to his very first novel, A TIME TO KILL, I started thinking about what he's doing as a novelist that is somewhat novel.
By no means a great literary stylist, nor a master of charactertization or mood, Grisham has nevertheless managed to keep his career chugging, probably because he wields something in his arsenal that many other writers sorely lack -- namely, a kind of real-world occupational experience that provides endless bounty for his legal-thriller plots, as well as insights into American jurisprudence that can serve to illustrate in fictional form how his country has lost its way.
He's no means the only legal-thriller author out there, and probably not the best; that title still belongs to Scott Turow, I'd reckon, although Turow has always favoured and emphasized characterization more than his legalistic brethren, squarely occupying that strange no-man's land between 'popular fiction' and 'literature'. (And, as much as I like Turow, I did feel that INNOCENT, his sequel to PRESUMED INNOCENT, was pretty much a bust, if only because its premise was so unlikely and contrived, even for the legal genre: "He's on trial AGAIN for murder?!?") Turow seems to allow his themes to emerge from his characters' turmoils, whereas Grisham lets the story tug everybody along. That only works if you have a pretty good plot to hang your hat on, and Grisham usually piques our interest by the specific legal milieu he explores in each book.
Grisham was a small-town laywer before he became a writer, and, either intentionally or inadvertently, over the past two decades he has slowly, novel by novel, crafted an extended expose on the ridiculously convoluted nature of the American legal system -- and, by extension, of America itself.
Just look at some of the titles of his books, and tell me if he is or is not, in some small way, illustrating the means by which American justice is disseminated and distorted, and also let's not forget that, collectively, the names of these books could serve as the Table of Contents for a first-year textbook in law: THE FIRM, THE CLIENT, THE CHAMBER, THE RAINMAKER, THE RUNAWAY JURY, THE PARTNER, THE STREET LAWYER, THE TESTAMENT, THE SUMMONS, THE KING OF TORTS, THE LAST JUROR, THE BROKER, THE APPEAL, THE ASSOCIATE, THE CONFESSION, THE LITIGATORS, THE RACKETEER.
What we have here are books that, as a group, seem to examine almost every conceivable aspect of the American legal experience. What's the benefit of that? I'm thinking of something that both Norman Mailer and Doris Lessing have hinted at -- namely, that the majority of fiction writers, substantial fiction writers, have very little experience of professional life. Where are the great doctors, airline pilots, stockbrokers who are also excellent novelists? There aren't any, essentially. The skills it takes to become a writer are usually honed in the time that other folks use to ascend up the ladder of their professions. As a result, we get fantastic novelists who work wonders with prose, bu they often lack something, for a lack of a better word, authentic. Not emotionally, but practically, real-world. An insight into various professions, perhaps; a knowledge of nuts-and-bolts societal constructions, maybe. There's often a textured, I've-been-there occupational reality absent, either blue-collar or upper-class, that limits not only the settings of novels, but also their content and intent.
Grisham knows the law, and that laundry-list of titles up above embodies how he's delved into almost eveyr nook and cranny of its hidden corners and constructs. Even in his melodramatically suspenseful page-turners, he's letting us in on notions of the law that would otherwise remain hidden. This doesn't make his books great literature; it can, however, make for a pretty good story, given that we're allowed access to systems of thought that non-legal minds couldn't normally pry.
(From time to time, he steps out of the legal world, writing sports novels (BLEACHERS, CALICO JOE, PLAYING FOR PIZZA), young adult novels, an involving non-fiction work, THE INNOCENT MAN, and even holiday novels; his book SKIPPING CHRISTMAS has the dubious distinction of being turned into a Tim Allen comedy. He has a book of short short stories (unread by me) called FORD COUNTRY that focuses on small-town life. And probably his best book started as a serial that he published in THE OXFORD AMERICAN, a Southern literary magazine that he purchased when it started to go under. A PAINTED HOUSE is a moving coming-of-age tale that has a little bit of a TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD vibe, and I'm quite certain that it'll be the best thing that Grisham will ever write. It has heart, and charm, and feels like it's the kind of story he wrote just to prove that he could.)
The first half of his novels tend to satisfy more than the rest; often the tales kind of peter out by the end, as if he's rushing to beat a deadline that's a-coming. The characterization and plots vary, in terms of freshness and vibe. Sometimes you can feel the padding. Yet there are other times when I'll pick up one of his books almost condescendingly, telling myself that I'll only read a few pages until something better comes along, and before you know it I'm halfway through the damn thing. I realize: He's telling me about a world that I could never enter on my own. That particular dexterity and knowledge won't necessarily elevate his tales to the highest order of art, but it definitely helps in making a story feel full.