The Associate

You might think that John Grisham’s 22nd book, The Associate, has little chance of being any good. According to its jacket copy, it’s practically a rewrite of his 1991 blockbuster, The Firm. Time magazine cheerfully dismissed it as “John Grisham’s Charming Novel About Nothing.” And the book’s hand-wringing about the outrageous excesses of fancy Wall Street law firms seems, in this winter of our hardship, so suddenly last summer.

You might think all these things, but you would be wrong.

Those echoes of The Firm? Evidence that a winning formula still works. A charming novel about nothing? In fact it’s about quite a lot of things, including alcoholism, rape, and the big New York law firm as evil empire, a soul-killing “full-service sweatshop” for its younger members and the venue for a reckless proliferation of billable $800 hours for its partners. Those glory days might be over, but instead of seeming out of date, the novel shows us how we got where we find ourselves now.

It’s a fairly solid rebuke from a writer who’s already had a bit of success telling stories about the uses and abuses of our legal system. Yet Grisham the moralizer never overshadows Grisham the entertainer. In the end, what matters most in his books is plot, plot, plot. Forget character. Forget setting. You’ll get only what you need of both to stage each scene. It’s tempting to think of The Associate as not so much a book as a stealthy little mechanism designed to make readers turn pages.

Here’s the hook. Fresh out of Yale law school, 25-year-old star student Kyle McAvoy lands a plum starting position as an associate at the Manhattan mega-firm Scully & Pershing. With 2,100 lawyers, the firm bills itself as “the largest law firm the world has ever known,” with a reputation for working its rookies to near-death, then lavishly rewarding the survivors. Grisham isn’t stingy with the soul-selling implications. When a new wave of recruits passes the bar exam, the celebrations are edged with ghoulishness: “The general feeling was one of euphoria, even giddiness, because the nightmare was over and they were now lawyers forever.”

Into this standard hazing scenario, of course, Grisham injects a big old complication. It turns out that Kyle, who grew up in his father’s small-town Pennsylvania law office, really doesn’t want this brass-ring corporate job. After Yale, he had planned to take a legal-aid position representing migrant workers in Virginia. But just before graduation he’s cornered by a malevolent character, code-named Bennie, who has other ways of making Kyle useful.

It’s a simple case of blackmail. Back in college, Kyle and three of his fraternity brothers were accused of raping a girl while she was in and out of consciousness after a wild party. The details were murky and the case was eventually dropped, but now Bennie claims to have a cell-phone video of the rape, along with evidence that the girl still wants revenge. To avoid possible conviction and safeguard his brilliant future, all Kyle has to do is agree to take a job at Scully & Pershing, with a starting salary of $200,000. Once in place, he’ll serve as Bennie’s “asset,” stealing highly sensitive government documents pertaining to a multibillion-dollar lawsuit between two giant defense contractors.

Thoroughly scared into submission, Kyle embarks on “the miserable life of an unwilling spy,” made even more miserable by the usual indignities suffered by first-year associates. There are the tedious hours of document review in a dungeon-like basement, the pointless all-nighters, the maltreatment as a lackey and a chauffeur — all billed at $400 per hour to faceless corporate clients with payrolls too bloated to cause any notice.

Like Mitch McDeere in The Firm, Kyle is another paranoid young kid on the run, vainly hoping to outwit a menacing institutional enemy. (Whom does Bennie work for? Grisham keeps us guessing.) The difference, this time, is that Kyle is also running from his own shameful past, a specter that thrusts itself into his present-day circumstances whenever he begins to relax. In brilliantly connected subplots, Grisham introduces Kyle’s former frat brothers into the action — one a hapless alcoholic, another a docile mortgage broker — with each fellow’s reappearance placing Kyle in increasing danger.

As in most of Grisham’s books, the imagined world of The Associate is vivid and just ridiculously entertaining. It’s also evanescent, a gleaming hall of mirrors that disappears as soon as the pages stop turning. At one point early on, when Bennie first menaces Kyle, he sets up a fake FBI ambush in adjoining rooms of a New Haven Holiday Inn. As soon as he gets what he wants from Kyle, Bennie admits that he’s not FBI at all, and the carefully staged scene in the room next door abruptly vanishes: “What had once been an FBI command center had now been converted back to a regular $89-a-night motel room. Ginyard and Plant and the other fake agents were long gone, and they had taken everything — files, computers, enlarged photos, tripods, briefcases, boxes, folding tables. The bed was back in the center of the room, perfectly made up.” That’s the feeling exactly.

“I write to grab readers. This isn’t serious literature,” Grisham once told People.The strategy seems to have worked: according to some estimates, Grisham’s books have sold more than 100 million copies, making him perhaps the biggest-selling author in the world. Why is it, then, that so many readers quite clearly accept what Grisham is trying to do, while there are still critics who insist on looking for things that they’re never going to see, reviewing his work with the same standards that they use for literary fiction? Why are they grousing about lack of character development or setting in a book that doesn’t have much use for either, and why do they insist — as Lev Grossman did in his “Charming Novel About Nothing” review for Time — on looking for a point?

“It’s amazing that anybody could put together a book that is this compulsively readable while at the same time being almost entirely devoid of substance of any kind,” writes Grossman about The Associate. Back in 1993, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt made an identical objection in his New York Times review of The Client, writing: “Once again, as he did in The Firm, Mr. Grisham enraptures us with a story that has hardly any point. What’s most irritating is how deeply the plot hooks us.”

The point is that you keep turning the pages. That’s it. And while Lord knows John Grisham will be just fine with or without critics, isn’t it possible that critics need John Grisham, or at least an invigorated way of including him and his legions of readers in the great national conversation about books?