In the parlance of the country club, a ”rainmaker” is a law partner with all the social and political clout to bring in big clients with deep pockets. Banks, insurance companies, Fortune 500 corporations, major-league baseball team owners-that kind of thing. Hence the alert reader familiar with the themes that have helped make John Grisham one of the most popular novelists in the history of American publishing probably doesn’t need to be told that the title of his latest — and best — legal thriller to date is almost bitterly ironic.
THE RAINMAKER (Doubleday, $25.95), indeed. Grisham’s protagonist, Rudy Baylor, an impoverished Memphis State law student, is anything but well-connected. As the story opens, Rudy finds himself about to graduate, but decidedly ambivalent. Having worked his way through school tending bar, he’s leery of the smug careerism of his fellow students. What’s more, his girlfriend’s dumped him to marry a socialite classmate; he’s been evicted from his apartment because he’s fallen behind on the rent; and the modest Memphis law firm that promised him a job has just merged with the city’s snootiest corporate practice and no longer needs his services.
So anyhow, Rudy’s down at the Cypress Gardens Senior Citizens center fulfilling requirements for his dullest course, Legal Problems of the Elderly- or ”Geezer Law,” as his classmates call it — when the case of a lifetime walks in the door. Except that at first it looks like almost nothing. It seems that Dot and Buddy Black, a pair of disabled pensioners, bought a family health insurance policy from an outfit called Great Benefit Life. But after their boy Donny Ray was diagnosed with acute leukemia and needed a bone marrow transplant, the company refused to pay. Now Donny Ray’s near death, and the Blacks want to file a lawsuit. Precisely the same kind of lawsuit, Grisham wants you to understand, that pending congressional ”tort reforms” would make far riskier to file and far harder to win (The Rainmaker’s dedication reads ”To American trial lawyers”).
But the perfect little exclusionary clause that Rudy expects to find in the Blacks’ policy isn’t there. Donny Ray’s illness ought to have been covered. And the further he digs into the case, the more it appears that Great Benefit Life has sentenced his clients’ son to die out of nothing other than malignant greed. And ”what are the odds of the company I hate the most, Great Benefit,” Rudy asks, ”retaining the firm I curse every day of my life?”
Well, in a John Grisham novel, they’re about 100 to 1 in favor of sheer coincidence. Just about the same, that is, as the odds that Rudy would meet a gorgeous young thing in the cafeteria of the Memphis charity hospital where he hangs out nights, studying for the bar exam and hoping to scrounge up the occasional auto-wreck victim who needs a lawyer. Her name’s Kelly, and she needs a hero every bit as badly as Donny Ray. Unless Rudy can persuade Kelly to file for divorce and press criminal charges against her violently abusive, redneck husband, she too could end up dead.
So it’s David v. Goliath at the Shelby County Justice Center in Memphis. As for Grisham himself, who returns to straightforward courtroom melodrama for the first time since A Time to Kill, the novel he scribbled out on legal pads while practicing law in Oxford, Miss., the surprise is how much smoother and more confident he’s grown as a storyteller. If The Rainmaker’s outcome is a bit predictable, Grisham’s vivid minor characters and near-Dickensian zeal for mocking pomposity and privilege are apt to endear him to his many readers all over again.