Book: The Street Lawyer by John Grisham (Century, pounds 16.99)

thursday's book

The US is the world's richest Third World nation. Imperial America's decay has one simple cause: the unsustainable tension between extreme greed and extreme poverty. While intellectuals wring their hands, it takes a thriller-writer to mention this unmentionable fact.

John Grisham's new novel opens with the narrator and several colleagues being held at gunpoint. Michael is a rising star in a giant DC law firm; his captor is a down-and-out, who demands to know how much each of his hostages donated to charity during the last fiscal year. Specifically, money to buy "Food for hungry people right here in this city."

Michael responds to this adventure by more-or-less deliberately "cracking up". He resigns his job, and - frightened and excited at the prospect of visiting another planet, 20 minutes' drive from his office, where the poor and black live - he becomes an advocate for the homeless in a country where homelessness is in effect illegal.

Grisham is among the most dialectical of contemporary writers, popular or literary, but The Street Lawyer is a plainly didactic book. It is a curious novel, fluent and fascinating, but not suspenseful and with a strangely fairy-tale ending. This may surprise those who know his work only by reputation. What makes Grisham stand out among authors of blockbusters is his evident determination never to write the same book twice, though he incorporates elements of each in all its successors.

His second novel (The Firm, 1991) made him a multi-millionaire, and gave him the freedom to ignore the rules of publishing. While this has resulted in one or two mistakes ("daft" would be a charitable description of The Client), his work can be seen as a cumulative dissection of the legal system of a kind probably not attempted since Dickens.

With lawyerly precision, in each book he strips away another layer of fashionable marginalia and moral obfuscation from subjects such as racism, capital punishment and corruption. Now, with The Street Lawyer, he has arrived at the heart of the case for the prosecution: hunger in the Land of the Fat.

Grisham's previous book, The Partner, was a satirical fable of a kind rarely sold at airport bookstalls, and this new novel contains some fine, grim comedy. I half-suspect that Grisham is not a particularly humorous man himself, but a skilled writer who has mastered comic techniques through diligent study. He seems to be getting angrier about the betrayal of America, and increasingly favours the neat gag over the dazzling cliff-hanger.

Ironically, it is just because he is the world's best-selling author that he is able to work almost under cover, invisible to mainstream critics. He uses this independence to think for himself - the faculty his readers have surrendered in exchange for their status as middle-class Americans.

No off-the-peg liberal, Grisham's ultimate destination is unguessable. Whatever he writes next, don't underestimate this man. Few writers have so much to say, the skills to make reading what they say an irresistible pleasure - and the clout to be able to say it, when and how they like, to an audience of millions.

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.


ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Clinical Lead / RGN

    £40000 - £42000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

    Recruitment Genius: IT Sales Consultant

    £35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT support company has a n...

    Recruitment Genius: Works Engineer

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A works engineer is required in a progressive ...

    Recruitment Genius: Trainee Hire Manager - Tool Hire

    £21000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our client is seeking someone w...

    Day In a Page

    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

    Why are we addicted to theme parks?

    Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
    Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

    Iran is opening up again to tourists

    After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
    10 best PS4 games

    10 best PS4 games

    Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
    Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

    Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

    Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
    Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

    ‘Can we really just turn away?’

    Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

    ... and not just because of Isis vandalism
    Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

    Girl on a Plane

    An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent
    Markus Persson: If being that rich is so bad, why not just give it all away?

    That's a bit rich

    The billionaire inventor of computer game Minecraft says he is bored, lonely and isolated by his vast wealth. If it’s that bad, says Simon Kelner, why not just give it all away?
    Euro 2016: Chris Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

    Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

    Wales last qualified for major tournament in 1958 but after several near misses the current crop can book place at Euro 2016 and end all the indifference