|John Grisham's new novel is a thriller with a message. (Lynne brubaker)|
Tom Wolfe's epic 1987 novel, "The Bonfire of the Vanities," unforgettably examined the money grubbing, hypocrisy, and spiritual hollowness of New York City during the 1980s. It mercilessly skewered Reagan-era American values, holding up a mirror that made readers simultaneously nod in self-recognition and flinch in horror. With "The Appeal," a novel that could become its own era-defining classic, John Grisham holds up that same mirror to our age.
Like Wolfe, Grisham unfolds his tale of a lawsuit against a chemical company from the perspectives of all involved, from the bereft widow whose husband has died of cancer to the billionaire CEO ruthlessly trying to keep his company in business. His panoramic story is a legal thriller, but its mammoth ambition and unflinching moral outlook enable "The Appeal" to transcend the genre.
The setting is Bowmore, Miss., where Krane Chemical Co. has been illegally dumping chemical waste for years. As a result, Bowmore's drinking water has become contaminated, and "the rate of cancer was fifteen times the national average," in a plotline that echoes Jonathan Harr's Woburn-based "A Civil Action." A widow sues Krane in state court and, with the help of a husband-and-wife attorney team, wins a damage award of $41 million. Krane's Manhattan-based CEO, Carl Trudeau, remains defiant: "I swear to you on my mother's grave that not one dime of Krane's money will ever be touched by those ignorant people," he tells his defeated legal team.
Krane appeals the initial court decision, and Trudeau decides to secretly invest several million dollars in litigation "insurance": He pays a mysterious consultant named Barry Rinehart to make sure Krane wins its legal appeal. Rinehart tells Trudeau that the elected Mississippi Supreme Court is deeply divided and that one supportive judge would make all the difference - "We target a supreme court justice who is not particularly friendly, and we take him, or her, out of the picture." Rinehart finds a pliable candidate, a clean-cut and church-going attorney named Ron Fisk, then organizes his campaign against an incumbent "liberal judge" named Sheila McCarthy. Needless to say, the campaign is both well funded and filled with dirty tricks.
Grisham is clearly fed up with how big money tends to control political races. The long campaign he so engagingly describes is a mixture of character assassination, breathtaking hypocrisy, mudslinging ads, and backroom fraudulence. In other words, Grisham offers a sadly familiar picture of today's political scene.
The well-financed Fisk wins a seat on the Mississippi court, and Trudeau celebrates soon after by purchasing a huge yacht and naming it after his trophy wife. Yet Grisham's message isn't that money always prevails over justice, that big corporations will inevitably and continually squash the little guy by whatever immoral means necessary. Something shocking happens to the newly bought supreme court justice at story's end, triggering an epiphany that makes room for optimism.
While there's little doubt that Grisham loathes the rampant corruption and plutocracy he describes, he also offers a story that's strangely filled with the possibility of human decency and endurance. There's light shining into this darkness, a slight promise of change based on pure and growing disgust with the status quo.
"The Appeal" is an entertaining page-turner that, by showing readers a perversion of the system, yearns for justice. Who knew that the mega-best-selling Grisham wanted to be a moralist, a sort of Old Testament prophet fulminating against our sins? In "The Appeal," he pulls that off beautifully.
Chuck Leddy is a freelance writer who lives in Dorchester.