From the Publisher
“GRISHAM HAS A FIELD DAY…The Associate grabs the reader quickly and becomes impossible to put down.” —Janet Maslin, The New York Times
“Grisham’s confident style hasn’t changed, and THERE’S SUSPENSE APLENTY.” —People
“Grisham makes it easy for us to keep flipping the pages…A DEVASTATING PORTRAIT OF THE BIG-TIME, BIG-BUCKS LEGAL WORLD.” —Patrick Anderson, The Washington Post
“Throughout, Grisham unwinds the spool of his narrative at a MASTERFUL, page-turning pace that pulls readers in and keeps them wanting more…The Associate is an absorbing thriller that's A FITTING FOLLOW-UP TO THE FIRM.” —The Boston Globe
“COMPULSIVELY READABLE…You're peering into a secret world of power and money. What more could you or any red-blooded American ask for?” —Time magazine
“A PAGE-TURNER…Kyle McAvoy recalls Mitch McDeere from Grisham's breakout novel The Firm. He's young, idealistic, handsome, a little too cocky for his own good, but a brilliant lawyer who gets pulled in over his head and given an education in how the world really works.” —The Los Angeles Times
Bestseller Grisham's contemporary legal thriller offers an action-and-suspense plot reminiscent of that of his breakout book, 1991's The Firm, in contrast to 2008's didactic The Appeal, which served as a platform for his concerns about the corrupting effects of judicial elections. Kyle McAvoy, a callow Yale Law School student, dreams of a public service gig on graduation, until shadowy figures blackmail him with a videotape that could revive a five-year-old rape accusation. Instead of helping those in need, McAvoy accepts a position at a huge Wall Street firm, Scully & Pershing, whose clients include a military contractor enmeshed in a $800 billion lawsuit concerning a newly-designed aircraft. McAvoy can avoid exposure of his past if he feeds his new masters inside information on the case. Readers should be prepared for some predictable twists, an ending with some unwarranted ambiguity and some unconvincing details (the idea that a secret file room in a high stakes litigation case would be closed from 10:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m. every night stretches credulity to the breaking point). Still, Grisham devotees should be satisfied, even if this is one of his lesser works.
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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? --Donna Rifkind
Donna Rifkind's reviews appear frequently in The Washington Post Book World and the Los Angeles Times. She has also been a contributor to The New York Times Book Review, The Wall Street Journal, The Times Literary Supplement, The American Scholar, and other publications. In 2006, she was a finalist for the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle.
Read an Excerpt
The rules of the New Haven Youth League required that each kid play at least ten minutes in each game. Exceptions were allowed for players who had upset their coaches by skipping practice or violating other rules. In such cases, a coach could file a report before the game and inform the scorekeeper that so-and-so wouldn’t play much, if at all, because of some infraction. This was frowned on by the league; it was, after all, much more recreational than competitive.
With four minutes left in the game, Coach Kyle looked down the bench, nodded at a somber and pouting little boy named Marquis, and said, “Do you want to play?” Without responding, Marquis walked to the scorers’ table and waited for a whistle. His violations were numerous–skipping practice, skipping school, bad grades, losing his uniform, foul language. In fact, after ten weeks and fifteen games, Marquis had broken every one of the few rules his coach tried to enforce. Coach Kyle had long since realized that any new rule would be immediately violated by his star, and for that reason he trimmed his list and fought the temptation to add new regulations. It wasn’t working. Trying to control ten inner- city kids with a soft touch had put the Red Knights in last place in the 12 and Under division of the winter league.
Marquis was only eleven, but clearly the best player on the court. He preferred shooting and scoring over passing and defending, and within two minutes he’d slashed through the lane, around and through and over much larger players, and scored six points. His average was fourteen, and if allowed to play more than half a game, he could probably score thirty. In his own young opinion, he really didn’t need to practice.
In spite of the one-man show, the game was out of reach. Kyle McAvoy sat quietly on the bench, watching the game and waiting for the clock to wind down. One game to go and the season would be over, his last as a basketball coach. In two years he’d won a dozen, lost two dozen, and asked himself how any person in his right mind would willingly coach at any level. He was doing it for the kids, he’d said to himself a thousand times, kids with no fathers, kids from bad homes, kids in need of a positive male influence. And he still believed it, but after two years of babysitting, and arguing with parents when they bothered to show up, and hassling with other coaches who were not above cheating, and trying to ignore teenage referees who didn’t know a block from a charge, he was fed up. He’d done his community service, in this town anyway.
He watched the game and waited, yelling occasionally because that’s what coaches are supposed to do. He looked around the empty gym, an old brick building in downtown New Haven, home to the youth league for fifty years. A handful of parents were scattered through the bleachers, all waiting for the final horn. Marquis scored again. No one applauded. The Red Knights were down by twelve with two minutes to go.
At the far end of the court, just under the ancient scoreboard, a man in a dark suit walked through the door and leaned against the retractable bleachers. He was noticeable because he was white. There were no white players on either team. He stood out because he wore a suit that was either black or navy, with a white shirt and a burgundy tie, all under a trench coat that announced the presence of an agent or a cop of some variety.
Coach Kyle happened to see the man when he entered the gym, and he thought to himself that the guy was out of place. Probably a detective of some sort, maybe a narc looking for a dealer. It would not be the first arrest in or around the gym.
After the agent/cop leaned against the bleachers, he cast a long suspicious look at the Red Knights’ bench, and his eyes seemed to settle on Coach Kyle, who returned the stare for a second before it became uncomfortable. Marquis let one fly from near mid- court, air ball, and Coach Kyle jumped to his feet, spread his hands wide, shook his head as if to ask, “Why?” Marquis ignored him as he loafed back on defense. A dumb foul stopped the clock and prolonged the misery. While looking at the free-throw shooter, Kyle glanced beyond him, and in the background was the agent/cop, still staring, not at the action but at the coach.
For a twenty-five-year-old law student with no criminal record and no illegal habits or proclivities, the presence and the attention of a man who gave all indications of being employed by some branch of law enforcement should have caused no concern whatsoever. But it never worked that way with Kyle McAvoy. Street cops and state troopers didn’t particularly bother him. They were paid to simply react. But the guys in dark suits, the investigators and agents, the ones trained to dig deep and discover secrets–those types still unnerved him.
Thirty seconds to go and Marquis was arguing with a referee. He’d thrown an F-bomb at a ref two weeks earlier and was suspended for a game. Coach Kyle yelled at his star, who never listened. He quickly scanned the gym to see if agent/cop No. 1 was alone or was now accompanied by agent/cop No. 2. No, he was not.
Another dumb foul, and Kyle yelled at the referee to just let it slide. He sat down and ran his finger over the side of his neck, then flicked off the perspiration. It was early February, and the gym was, as always, quite chilly.
Why was he sweating?
The agent/cop hadn’t moved an inch; in fact he seemed to enjoy staring at Kyle.
The decrepit old horn finally squawked. The game was mercifully over. One team cheered, and one team really didn’t care. Both lined up for the obligatory high fives and “Good game, good game,” as meaningless to twelve- year- olds as it is to college players. As Kyle congratulated the opposing coach, he glanced down the court. The white man was gone.
What were the odds he was waiting outside? Of course it was paranoia, but paranoia had settled into Kyle’s life so long ago that he now simply acknowledged it, coped with it, and moved on.
The Red Knights regrouped in the visitors’ locker room, a cramped little space under the sagging and permanent stands on the home side. There Coach Kyle said all the right things–nice effort, good hustle, our game is improving in certain areas, let’s finish on a high note this Saturday. The boys were changing clothes and hardly listening. They were tired of basketball because they were tired of losing, and of course all blame was heaped upon the coach. He was too young, too white, too much of an Ivy Leaguer.
The few parents who were there waited outside the locker room, and it was those tense moments when the team came out that Kyle hated most about his community service. There would be the usual complaints about playing time. Marquis had an uncle, a twenty-two year-old former all-state player with a big mouth and a fondness for bitching about Coach Kyle’s unfair treatment of the “best player in the league.”
From the locker room, there was another door that led to a dark narrow hallway that ran behind the home stands and finally gave way to an outside door that opened into an alley. Kyle was not the first coach to discover this escape route, and on this night he wanted to avoid not only the families and their complaints but also the agent/ cop. He said a quick goodbye to his boys, and as they fled the locker room, he made his escape. In a matter of seconds he was outside, in the alley, then walking quickly along a frozen sidewalk. Heavy snow had been plowed, and the sidewalk was icy and barely passable. The temperature was somewhere far below freezing. It was 8:30 on a Wednesday, and he was headed for the law journal offices at the Yale Law School, where he would work until midnight at least.
He didn’t make it.
The agent was leaning against the fender of a red Jeep Cherokee that was parked parallel on the street. The vehicle was titled to one John McAvoy of York, Pennsylvania, but for the past six years it had been the reliable companion of his son, Kyle, the true owner.
Though his feet suddenly felt like bricks and his knees were weak, Kyle managed to trudge on as if nothing were wrong. Not only did they find me, he said to himself as he tried to think clearly, but they’ve done their homework and found my Jeep. Not exactly high-level research. I have done nothing wrong, he said again and again.
“Tough game, Coach,” the agent said when Kyle was ten feet away and slowing down.
Kyle stopped and took in the thick young man with red cheeks and red bangs who’d been watching him in the gym. “Can I help you?” he said, and immediately saw the shadow of No. 2 dart across the street. They always worked in pairs.
No. 1 reached into a pocket, and as he said “That’s exactly what you can do,” he pulled out a leather wallet and flipped it open. “Bob Plant, FBI.”
“A real pleasure,” Kyle said as all the blood left his brain and he couldn’t help but flinch.
No. 2 wedged himself into the frame. He was much thinner and ten years older with gray around the temples. He, too, had a pocketful, and he performed the well- rehearsed badge presentation with ease. “Nelson Ginyard, FBI,” he said.
Bob and Nelson. Both Irish. Both northeastern.
“Anybody else?” Kyle asked.
“No. Got a minute to talk?”
“You might want to,” Ginyard said. “It could be very productive.”
“I doubt that.”
“If you leave, we’ll just follow,” Plant said as he stood from his slouch position and took a step closer. “You don’t want us on campus, do you?”
“Are you threatening me?” Kyle asked. The sweat was back, now in the pits of his arms, and despite the arctic air a bead or two ran down his ribs.
“Not yet,” Plant said with a smirk.
“Look, let’s spend ten minutes together, over coffee,” Ginyard was saying. “There’s a sandwich shop just around the corner. I’m sure it’s warmer there.”
“Do I need a lawyer?”
“That’s what you always say. My father is a lawyer and I grew up in his office. I know your tricks.”
“No tricks, Kyle, I swear,” Ginyard said, and he at least sounded genuine. “Just give us ten minutes. I promise you won’t regret it.”
“What’s on the agenda?”
“Ten minutes. That’s all we ask.”
“Give me a clue or the answer is no.”
Bob and Nelson looked at each other. Both shrugged. Why not? We’ll have to tell him sooner or later. Ginyard turned and looked down the street and spoke into the wind. “Duquesne University. Five years ago. Drunk frat boys and a girl.”
Kyle’s body and mind had different reactions. His body conceded– a quick slump of the shoulders, a slight gasp, a noticeable jerk in the legs. But his mind fought back instantly. “That’s bullshit!” he said, then spat on the sidewalk. “I’ve already been through this. Nothing happened and you know it.”
There was a long pause as Ginyard continued to stare down the street while Plant watched their subject’s every move. Kyle’s mind was spinning. Why was the FBI involved in an alleged state crime? In second-year Criminal Procedure they had studied the new laws regarding FBI interrogation. It was now an indictable offense to simply lie to an agent in this very situation. Should he shut up? Should he call his father? No, under no circumstances would he call his father.
Ginyard turned, took three steps closer, clenched his jaw like a bad actor, and tried to hiss his tough- guy words. “Let’s cut to the chase, Mr. McAvoy, because I’m freezing. There’s an indictment out of Pittsburgh, okay. Rape. If you want to play the hard-ass smart-ass brilliant law student and run get a lawyer, or even call your old man, then the indictment comes down tomorrow and the life you have planned is pretty much shot to shit. However, if you give us ten minutes of your valuable time, right now, in the sandwich shop around the corner, then the indictment will be put on hold, if not forgotten altogether.”
“You can walk away from it,” Plant said from the side. “Without a word.”
“Why should I trust you?” Kyle managed to say with a very dry mouth.
“You got a tape recorder?”
“I want it on the table, okay? I want every word recorded because I don’t trust you.”
They jammed their hands deep into the pockets of their matching trench coats and stomped away. Kyle unlocked his Jeep and got inside. He started the engine, turned the heat on high, and thought about driving away.