By Tom De Haven
Updated February 13, 1998 at 05:00 AM EST

The Street Lawyer

  • Book

Because of their frenetic pace and mortised plotting, and especially because of their popularity, John Grisham’s books are usually dismissed as mere “legal thrillers.” Okay, but that’s a little like calling The Grapes of Wrath only a “road novel.” While Grisham may not have John Steinbeck’s literary genius, he does share with him the conscience of a social critic and the soul of a preacher. No matter how smoothly he entertains you (and with each succeeding novel, Grisham’s storytelling becomes tighter, cleaner, more efficient), his fiction is never purely escapist. From the start of his career, he’s been a side taker and a finger pointer, tackling issues from racial injustice and children’s rights to the death penalty, corporate amorality, and, with his latest annual novel, homelessness.

In The Street Lawyer, that finger-pointing advocacy can often turn scenes into civics lessons and make an awful lot of dialogue read like op-ed screeds. (“In the past fifteen years,” says one activist lawyer, “two and a half million low-cost housing units have been eliminated, and the federal housing programs have been cut seventy percent….Governments are balancing budgets on the backs of the poor.”) What the novel lacks in subtlety, though, it more than makes up for in vigor. And besides that, it’s as compelling a read as anything Grisham has produced in the past.

Thirty-two-year-old Michael Brock, an antitrust lawyer working in the swank D.C. offices of Drake & Sweeney, is taken hostage, along with eight other attorneys, by an armed street person who identifies himself only as “Mister.” Although Mister threatens to kill everyone, his motives remain inexplicable. His only demand is to be told how much money his prisoners earned last year (he insists on seeing their 1040 forms!) and how much they gave away to charity. The tallies: a bundle, and not very much.

One deadly shot by a police sniper ends the six-hour standoff, but it precipitates a life change for Michael Brock, whose 90-hour workweeks suddenly seem pointless. Discovering that Mister had recently been evicted from his squatter’s apartment, and, further, that the eviction was orchestrated, illegally, by his own law firm, Michael flirts with the notion of leaving Drake & Sweeney to join the staff of a legal clinic as a public-interest lawyer; when it appears likely that the same eviction led to the deaths of a young mother and her four small children, Michael not only quits his job but also goes after his powerful former colleagues with a vengeance.

Although last year he did a bang-up job with the appealingly smarmy protagonist of The Partner, Grisham’s strong suit has never been character development. That weakness presents a bit of a problem here, since Michael’s transformation from a careerist attorney to a zealous champion of the poor happens, improbably, with the thunderclap swiftness of Saint Paul’s conversion.

Come to think of it, everything happens with astonishing speed. In a span of just 32 days, Michael Brock changes careers, ends his soured marriage, swipes a file of sensitive documents, nearly gets killed in a car crash, is arrested and beaten up, tracks down a reluctant witness, and even finds a girlfriend. The Street Lawyer may be grounded in urban reality, but Grisham’s storytelling is hardly gritty realism.

Nevertheless, this slickly designed entertainment is still a passionately angry book. America’s most popular novelist seems more determined than ever to try to use his clout to effect social change. And with millions of copies of The Street Lawyer certain to be read, that’s not out of the question. A-

The Street Lawyer

  • Book
  • John Grisham
  • Doubleday