The Barnes & Noble Review
More than any other writer and that includes John Grisham Scott Turow is responsible for the recent popular resurgence of the legal thriller. His 1987 bestseller, Presumed Innocent, is a stylish, hugely assured courtroom drama that set a new standard for the form and opened the door to an endless procession of lawyers-turned-writers, most of them considerably less gifted than Turow.
In the 12 years since, Turow's own career has been marked by his admirable refusal to replicate that initial success. His four subsequent novels, the latest of which is Personal Injuries, have all been radically different from one another; their only common denominator is the author's abiding interest in depicting the lives of the people who serve and represent the law.
Personal Injuries is set in Turow's by-now familiar fictional venue, Kindle County. Its narrator is George Mason, a well-bred, upper-crust defense attorney who, as the novel opens, has just taken on a volatile new client: Robbie Feaver, a slick, fast-talking lawyer who specializes in personal injuries litigation and who now faces indictment for tax evasion and bribery. Given the choice of cooperating with the government or spending several years in prison, Robbie becomes a confidential informant for U.S. Attorney Stan Sennett and agrees to wear a wire to all future meetings with the judges he has paid off, as well as with their various intermediaries and bagmen.
Robbie thus becomes the focal point of a protracted sting operation known as Project Petros, which forms the dramatic centerofthis beautifully constructed story of betrayal, personal responsibility, and difficult sometimes impossible choices. During a period of six months, Robbie and his new masters gradually gather evidence of judicial malfeasance, slowly making their way toward the elusive figure who is the ultimate target of Project Petros: Brendan Tuohey, the corrupt former cop who is now the corrupt presiding judge of the Common Law Claims Division of Kindle County, and who has spent the bulk of his career manipulating the law for his own personal profit.
In spite of the considerable excitement that the slowly unfolding sting operation provides, Personal Injuries is primarily a novel of character and is largely concerned with demonstrating the ways in which very different people change, grow, and reveal themselves under the stress of traumatic events. Through the course of the novel, Turow brings to vivid life an entire gallery of characters, among them the narrator, George Mason, who ends up learning as much about himself and his own personal limits as he does about his client, and Stan Sennett, the United States attorney who orchestrates Petros, and whose implacable, sometimes inhuman, pursuit of justice gives him an ironic resemblance to the very people he is determined to destroy.
But Personal Injuries draws its greatest strength from Turow's empathetic presentation of his two central characters: Robbie Feaver, the hapless hustler caught up in Stan Sennett's schemes, and Evon Miller, the pseudonymous FBI agent assigned to guard him. Evon is a former Olympic athlete who has never outside of her brief career in sports felt at home in the world. Lonely, susceptible to powerful attacks of unfocused longing, and dominated by sexual confusion and a sense of disconnection from the human mainstream, she reaches a believable and moving accommodation with herself during the course of her involvement with Robbie Feaver and his wildly disordered life.
Robbie, by contrast, is a flashy, philandering con man who has built his life on a series of lies and false foundations. But he is also a man capable of kindness, loyalty, and extraordinary fortitude. It's impossible not to be appalled by him at times, and it's equally impossible not to admire his stoic acceptance of a devastating series of losses, both personal and professional. His legal and financial problems, staggering as they are, are overwhelmed by the central fact of his daily life: His wife, Rainey, is being eaten alive by the final stages of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, better known as Lou Gehrig's disease. Turow's unsparing description of the effects of ALS on both its victims and their families is one of the book's most memorable and painful elements.
In the end, it is Robbie whose flawed humanity remains intact in the face of almost unendurable pressures who delivers the novel's most fundamental message: Everyone hurts, to some degree. Everyone is in pain. And the only answer, as Robbie tells Evon, is to "stick with each other, do for each other, and build up the world. Because misery does love company, and another soul's comfort is the only balm for the wounds."
This deceptively simple vision permeates the narrative and accounts for a great deal of its considerable emotional force. Personal Injuries may be David Shenk's most accomplished novel to date, and it is certainly his most moving. It is the work of a man who is both a master of the legal thriller and a natural-born novelist. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
Bill Sheehan reviews horror, suspense, and science fiction for Cemetery Dance, The New York Review of Science Fiction, and other publications. He is currently working on a book-length critical study of the fiction of Peter Straub.
Read an Excerpt
He knew that it was wrong, and that he was going to get caught. He said he knew this day was coming.
He knew they had been stupid, he told me -- worse, greedy. He said he knew he should have stopped. But somehow, each time he thought they'd quit, he'd ask himself how once more could make it any worse. Now he knew he was in trouble.
I recognized the tune. Over twenty-some years, the folks sitting in that leather club chair in front of my desk have found only a few old standards in the jukebox. I Didn't Do It. The Other One Did It. Why Are They Picking on Me. His selection, I'm Sorry, made the easiest listening. But they all wanted to hear the same song from me: Maybe I Can Get You Out of This. I said it usually, although I knew it would often prove untrue. But it's a complicated business being somebody's only hope.
This is a lawyer's story, the kind attorneys like to hear and tell. About a case. About a client. His name was Robert Feaver. Everyone knew him as Robbie, although he was getting old for that kind of thing, forty-three, he'd said, when I asked his age. The time was 1992, the second week in September. The pundits had finally stopped predicting that Ross Perot was going to be the next President of the United States, and the terms "dot" and "com" had not yet been introduced to one another. I recall the period precisely because the week before I had returned to Virginia to lay my father to rest. His passing, which over the years I'd assumed I would take as being in the natural order of things, had instead imbued all my waking moments with the remote quality of dreams, so that even my hand, when I considered it, seemed disconnected from my body.
Robbie Feaver's troubles were more immediate. Last night three Special Agents of the Internal Revenue Service's Criminal Intelligence Division had visited him at home -- one to talk and two to listen. They were, as you would expect, rumpled men in inexpensive sport coats, grave but polite. They had handed him a grand jury subpoena for all of his law partnership's financial records and tried to ask Robbie questions about his income tax returns. Wisely, he had refused to reply.
He could suit himself, responded the one agent who spoke. But they wanted to tell him a couple things. Good news and bad. Bad first.
They knew. They knew what Robbie and his law partner, Morton Dinnerstein, had been up to. They knew that for several years the two had occasionally deposited a check they received when they won or settled one of their personal injury cases in a secret account at River National Bank, where the firm transacted no other business. They knew that out of the River National account Dinnerstein and Robbie had paid the usual shares of what they'd earned -- two thirds to the clients, one ninth to the referring attorneys, odd amounts to experts or court reporters. Everyone had received his due. Except the IRS. They knew that for years now, Feaver and his partner had been writing checks to cash to draw down the balance of the account, never paying a dime in tax.
You guys are cold-cocked, the agent added. Robbie laughed now, very briefly, repeating the words.
I didn't ask how Robbie and his partner could have ever believed a scheme so simpleminded would work. I was long accustomed to the dumb ways people get themselves in trouble. Besides, the fact was that their scam had operated smoothly for years. A checking account that paid no interest was unlikely to come to the Service's attention. It was, frankly, noteworthy that it had, a development that would inevitably be traced to freak coincidence, or, if things were spicier, betrayal.
Feaver had heard out the agents in his living room. He was perched on a camelback sofa smartly upholstered in bleached silk, trying to contain himself. To smile. Stay slick. He opened his mouth to speak but was interrupted by the unexpected sensation of a single cold rill of his own sweat tracking the length of his side until it was absorbed in the elastic waistband of his boxers.
And the good news? he asked on second effort.
They were getting to that, the agent said. The good news was that Robbie had an opportunity. Maybe there was something he could do for himself. Something that a person with his family situation ought to consider.
The agent then walked across the marble foyer and opened the front door. The United States Attorney, Stan Sennett, was standing on Robbie's doorstep. Feaver recognized him from TV, a short man, slender, kempt with a compulsive orderliness. A few gnats zagged madly under the light above the careful part in Sennett's head. He greeted Feaver with his in-court expression, humorless as a hatchet blade.
Robbie had never practiced a day of criminal law, but he knew what it meant that the United States Attorney was standing in person on his front stoop late at night. It meant the biggest gun was pointed straight at him. It meant they wanted to make him an example. It meant he'd never get away.
In his terror, Robbie Feaver found a single useful thought.
I want a lawyer, he said.
He was entitled, Sennett finally responded. But perhaps Robbie should listen to him first. As soon as Sennett set a polished brogan across the threshold, Robbie repeated himself.
I can't promise the deal will be the same tomorrow, Sennett told him. Lawyer, Feaver said again.
The agents took over then, offering advice. If he was going to an attorney, find a good one, someone who'd been around. Talk to that lawyer -- and no one else. Not Mom. Not the wife. And certainly not his law partner, Dinnerstein. The U.S. Attorney passed one agent his card, and the agent handed it to Feaver. Sennett would be waiting for Feaver's lawyer's call. About to step down into the darkness, the prosecutor asked over his shoulder whether Robbie had anyone in mind.
Interesting choice, Sennett told Feaver with a shallow smile when he heard my name.
"I'm not a rat," Robbie Feaver said now. "That's the play, right, George? They want me to dime somebody out."
I asked if he had any idea who.
"Well, it better not be Mort. My partner? Never. There's nothing to say about Mort."
Feaver and Dinnerstein were lifelong friends, he told me, next-door neighbors as boys growing up in the Jewish enclave of Warren Park, here in DuSable, roommates through college and law school. But their secret account was joint, both men had made deposits and written the checks to cash, and neither had reported the income. There was enough damaging paper that it seemed unlikely the IRS was going to need anyone's assistance to install either one of them in the trophy case.
I asked if there might be something else the government wanted Robbie to tell them about Mort, or any other person, but Feaver hitched a shoulder limply, looking lost.
I did not know Robbie Feaver well. When he'd called this morning, he'd reminded me that we'd met several times in the lobby of the LeSueur Building where we each had our law offices, and of the committee work he'd done for the Kindle County Bar Association a couple of years ago during my term as president. My memories of him were vague and not necessarily pleasant. Measured according to the remaining reflexes of a proper Southern upbringing, he was the kind of fellow who'd be described simply as 'too much.' Too good-looking in the sense that he was too well aware of it. Too much stiff, dark hair that reflected too much fussing. He was tanned in every season and spent too much money on his clothes -- high-styled Italian suits and snazzy foulards -- accompanied by too much jewelry. He spoke too loudly, and too eagerly to strangers in the elevator. In fact, in any setting, he talked too much -- one of those people who went one up on Descartes: I speak, therefore I am. But I now saw one apparent virtue: he could have told you all of that. Diminished by fear, he maintained an air of candor, at least about himself. As clients went, therefore, he seemed, on first impression, better than average.
When I asked what the agent had meant about his family, he sagged a bit.
"Sick wife," he said, "sick mother." Waging a running war against the medical establishment, Feaver, like many personal injury attorneys, had absorbed the lexicon of physicians. His mother was in a nursing home. "CVA," he said, meaning a stroke. His wife, Lorraine, was worse. She had been diagnosed nearly two years ago with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis -- ALS, or more commonly Lou Gehrig's disease -- and was on a certain downward course toward total paralysis and, eventually, death.
"She's got a year maybe before things get really hairy, no one knows for sure." He was stoical but his black eyes did not rise from the carpet. "I mean, I can't leave her. Not practically. There's nobody else to take care of her."
That was the agent's point. Feaver would talk or be in the penitentiary when his wife reached the point of total helplessness or passed. The dark shroud of that prospect fell over us both.
In the resulting silence, I picked up Sennett's card, which Feaver had laid on my desk. Without it, I might have questioned whether Robbie had identified the right man on his doorstep. The United States Attorney, with ninety-two assistants and several hundred cases to supervise, would ordinarily have no direct role in a straightforward tax case, even one against a successful personal injury lawyer. Whatever Stan Sennett had come to Robbie's house to say last night must have been a mouthful.
"What did it mean," Feaver asked, "when Sennett said that George Mason would be an interesting choice? Does he hate your guts or think you're a pushover?"
It was complicated, I responded. I believed in some moods Stan would say I was a close friend.
"Well, that's good, then, isn't it?" Feaver asked.
When it came to Stan Sennett, I never knew the answer.
Sometimes friends, I told Feaver. Always rivals.
Copyright © 1999 by Scott Turow