Monday, February 16, 2015

1998: The Street Lawyer by John Grisham

The Author:

John Grisham (1955-    ) was born in Jonesboro, Arkansas, the son of a construction worker. At the age of twelve, his family moved to Southaven, Mississippi.  He graduated with a B.S. from Mississippi State University in 1979.  He passed the Mississippi Bar exam in 1981, and received his J.D. from the University of Mississippi.  In 1981, he married Renee Jones, with whom he had two children. 

Grisham began a successful law practice in 1981, starting in criminal law, and moving to more lucrative civil law.  In 1984, he was elected to the Mississippi State House of Representatives, a position he held in addition to running his law practice.  A case he witnessed while in the state legislature led him to write his first novel, A Time to Kill (1989).  He had trouble finding an agent and publisher.  He eventually found both, and a limited run of 5,000 copies was printed of his first novel.  In 1990, Grisham resigned from his position on state legislature and retired his practice.  In 1991, Doubleday published his second novel, The Firm.  It was a massive commercial success, as were his third and fourth novels, The Pelican Brief (1992) and The Client (1993).  His fourth book, The Chamber (1994) is the first of eleven novels to become the number one annual bestselling novel in the U.S.

Since 1989, Grisham has published a total of 29 novels, five children's books, and a work of non-fiction.  His family splits its time between homes in Oxford, Mississippi, Charlottesville, Virginia, and Chapel Hill, North Carolina.  Grisham also serves as a board member on the Innocence Project.  

The Book:

1st edition cover

Length: 348 pages
Subject/Genre: Homelessness PSA/Legal thriller

Michael Brock was an up-and-coming anti-trust lawyer on his way to a partnership in a big DC firm, then the unthinkable happened.  A homeless man barged into the law office and held several of the lawyers hostage, including Brock.  He then berated them for their heartlessness towards the more needy, before mentioning something about an eviction and having his head blown off by a police sniper.  This may sound like the beginning of Quentin Tarantino's A Christmas Carol, but is really the impetus for what Grisham presents as a serious look at the plight of the homeless.    

First, let me say that the plight of the homeless isn't a joke, and that a society with more than enough food and resources to care for all its members and still doesn't needs to take a good long look in the mirror.  Michael Brock, after his harrowing experience, contacts the 14th street legal clinic, who represented the kidnapper previously.  He agrees to volunteer at a homeless shelter with a lawyer from the clinic, where he meets an adorable child and his family.  Said child and family freeze to death soon after, leading Brock to take steps in seeking justice.  This is one big problem I have with the novel.  Pretty much every character exists solely to spur on Brock's development, with no real motivation of their own.  His relatives are one-dimensional success-oriented cardboard cutouts, the homeless characters are extras borrowed from The Fisher King, and Michael Brock is a Scrooge-like persona, sliding from 'self-centered rich yuppie' to 'beleaguered defender of the downtrodden.'  For a book that clearly presents itself as having a clear moral purpose (helping the homeless), the homeless play a pretty small part in it.  It's about the brave lawyer turning down a promising career as a soulless attache to the rich in favor of becoming a brave lawyer with a heart of gold.  He further undermines his own point by focusing the plot on a criminal conspiracy against a group of homeless people, which, while it allows for a happy ending where they stick it to the man, detracts attention from the completely legal ways in which our current system is unjust.  Despite some sentimental speeches about society's apathy, the majority of the novel paints the altruistic lawyer as the salvation of America's homeless, at the same time relieving the readers of the sense of responsibility the novel is supposed to instill.  

I realize I'm being pretty harsh, but let me say that it's a good thing Grisham used his reach as a public figure to draw attention to a good cause.  As a novel, it's better than last week's The Partner as well as The Testament (which I'll review next Monday).  If you have some insatiable urge to read a Grisham novel, and this is the only one available, go right ahead.  Otherwise, skip it.

Bestsellers of 1998:

1. The Street Lawyer by John Grisham
2. Rainbow Six by Tom Clancy
3. Bag of Bones by Stephen King
4. A Man in Full by Tom Wolfe
5. Mirror Image by Danielle Steel
6. The Long Road Home by Danielle Steel
7. The Klone and I by Danielle Steel
8. Point of Origin by Patricia Cornwell
9. Paradise by Toni Morrison
10. You Belong to Me by Mary Higgins Clark

Also Published in 1998:

The Hours by Michael Cunningham
The Love of a Good Woman by Alice Munro
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami
Holes by Louis Sachar


  1. This is a long slog through the Grisham Era. I read three or four of his early works but he keeps cranking them out. I had never even heard of this one.The top ten list is interesting in that Danielle Steel has three books on it. A Man In Full was probably Wolfe's last good book if you grade on a curve.

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