By Tom De Haven
Updated February 12, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST

The Testament

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True to form, the latest John Grisham novel opens with a killer hook. Dressed in a green turban and white silk robes, the 10th-richest man in America scribbles his signature on a short, blunt handwritten will, then promptly leaps from a terrace 14 floors up. Gotcha! But if you think Troy Phelan’s gaudy exit and the disposition of his $11 billion estate will ignite yet another of Grisham’s skillfully tangled legal thrillers, forget about it. Before you can even say ”probate,” The Testament does a startling 180, turning into a slick but crotchety amalgam of The African Queen and a Sunday-school parable.

Phelan, we soon discover, has stiffed his six greedy children — ”a miserable bunch, all of them” — and left his fortune to a 42-year-old illegitimate daughter nobody knew existed. Stunned, the family and its brace of lawyers mount an immediate assault on the will. The designated heiress, meanwhile, remains oblivious to the hoopla. And if that seems a bit of a stretch — well, Rachel Lane happens to be a Christian missionary working with a tribe of Indians ”somewhere” on the remote Brazil-Bolivia border. When Phelan’s attorney Josh Stafford decides to send an associate to find her and bring her home, the man he selects for the job is a middle-aged substance abuser with suicidal tendencies. Only in fiction, folks.

One day Nate O’Riley is drying out in a $1,000-a-day rehab unit; the next he’s venturing deep — then deeper still, via prop plane and progressively smaller boats — into the Pantanal, the world’s largest wetlands. Piranhas? Of course. Alligators? Definitely. Anacondas? Oh, yeah. And mosquitoes galore. But for a guy who’s flat broke, under indictment for income-tax evasion, facing disbarment and a term in federal prison, bugs, predators, storms, and heat seem almost a welcome relief.

Naturally, O’Riley’s arduous river journey — like every other similar journey taken in the history of storytelling — will become a rite of passage. We expect our dissipated hero to find redemption through suffering, endurance, and the all-around lack of good hygiene. Ever the crowd-pleaser, John Grisham makes sure our expectations are fulfilled. Problem is, he does it so strictly by the numbers that after a while you realize that you’re not reading just a quest novel, you’re reading the quest novel. The generic quest novel. Isn’t it time, you think, for the outboard motor to conk out? And darned if it doesn’t sputter and stall, five sentences later. Shouldn’t O’Riley, you say to yourself, be getting lost in the dark right about now? Sure enough. Suspicious natives? Here they come. Chills and a fever? Chills and a fever. Finally, all you want is to be surprised — just a little. Doesn’t happen. Even Rachel Lane, when at last she makes an appearance, is precisely what you’ve been expecting her to be: a saint with a medical bag. Good-looking too.

What do you figure the chances are that Nate O’Riley will fall in love with her?

Exactly so.

While O’Riley’s big familiar adventure takes up most of The Testament, from time to time we’re reeled suddenly back to Washington, D.C., and northern Virginia to check in on the progress of the family’s lawsuit. These sections drip — drip, nothing, they gush — with venom. In fact, Grisham’s depictions of the spoiled rich (They’re stupid! They’re liars! They’re sexually promiscuous!) are such hostile caricatures that perversely, you feel like siding with the Phelan brood against a sneering bully. For the first time in any of his novels, when John Grisham the moralist starts to preach, he sounds not only hectoring and self-righteous but tiresomely misanthropic.

Episode Recaps

Although The Testament climaxes with some high-stakes dealmaking and a shrewd courtroom deposition (conducted by a spiritually renewed Nate), it all comes too late. Far too late. By then, you couldn’t care less who gets the old man’s billions. By then, you just want to scrape the swamp muck off your shoes, quit breathing soggy hot air, and get the heck out of this novel. C

The Testament

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