The Associate

Once again, a Grisham protagonist finds himself caught up in the machinations of a corrupt law firm.

The Associate; By John Grisham; Doubleday; 373 pp., $27.95

Kyle McAvoy was born in a small town. And he’ll probably die in a small town. But first he must survive the hamster wheel known as Manhattan lawyering.

As John Grisham peer Stephen King once noted, people love to read about work. Sadly, it’s true – and Grisham’s latest novel, The Associate, can be seen as yet one more proof of that statement.

As made clear by Grisham’s twisting morality plays disguised as thrillers, workers of all ranks have an insatiable appetite to see their world – or one similar to it – rendered in dramatic terms.

Who can resist? After all, wouldn’t a work day be infinitely more interesting if every memo you read, every e-mail you sent, every trip to the copier sent ripples through Wall Street and the White House? (Perhaps bankers and mortgage lenders have become all too familiar with such a possibility in recent months. For the rest of us, though, the notion still enchants.)

Grisham long ago mastered the difficult art of pulling a narrative tauter and tauter as the pages breeze by, but “The Associate” centers as much on office politics, nagging cellphones, malicious copiers, and inveterate backstabbing as anything else.

When it comes to Kyle McAvoy, protagonist of “The Associate,” the career and life lesson Grisham hammers home is one of his favorites: Small towns good, cutthroat big cities bad.

Sure, it’s more than a bit hackneyed, but watching Grisham move his characters around the board overwhelms all other concerns. (Yes, even Rockwellian notions of eating at the local diner and being a “good lawyer” who provides counseling in exchange for seasonal fruits and vegetables. As Dave Barry would say, I’m not making this up. But Grisham must be.)

No matter. At the opposite end of the scales of justice, it’s still fun to believe that corporate lawyers who earn $200,000 to start, and several times as much within a few years, are as miserable as anyone else.
Or, as Kyle puts it, “I want to be a partner so I can sleep until 5:00 a.m. every day until I die at fifty. That’s what I want.” Not to mention the pressures of passing the bar, billing a minimum of 2,000 hours a year, and honing much-needed skills as a sycophant.

But this being Grisham, much bigger problems loom for our young legal associate.

During his undergrad days at Duquesne University, Kyle and some college buddies threw a big party and two of his roommates had what may or may not have been consensual sex with a female student. A rape case was dropped, but, five years later, a video of the night in question turns up – and Kyle finds himself the victim of a third-party blackmail scheme. Though he’s just an accessory, the video and sordid party could cost Kyle his new job and imprison his former roommates.

And the extortionist? He, of course, begins by manipulating Kyle away from the “right thing” (a low-paying job assisting migrant workers in Virginia) in favor of a classic Grisham Faustian bargain: accepting a high-paying job with a corporate firm in New York. Cue the Darth Vader theme.

The extortionist, known as Bennie, wants more than that, though. He commands Kyle to steal internal documents from his new job – the dreaded breach of legal ethics – tied to a defense-contracting lawsuit. While Scully & Pershing may not match the corruption of Mitch McDeere’s Bendini Lambert and Locke in “The Firm,” it’s hardly Habitat for Humanity, either.

As for the machinations and all-knowing spying, it’s all ridiculous – and just plausible enough to make the pages flutter past as Kyle tries to outsmart the bad guys while struggling to maintain his sanity in the brutal confines of young lawyerdom.

Critics carp about Grisham’s wooden dialogue and characters, but what he does well is much harder than it seems. You try and crank out a tidy 300- to 400-page novel every year with enough twists and turns to keep the pages turning even as you chronicle caricatures of legal malevolence. At least, let’s hope they’re caricatures.

Mocking Grisham because he’s no threat to fellow Mississippian William Faulkner (or Barry Hannah, for that matter) is an act of lazy thinking. Grisham is one of our most reliable popular entertainers because he delivers what people want – fizzy thrillers with a bit (OK, a lot) of moral superiority thrown in.

Hey, Bono isn’t Beethoven, but nobody seems to mind much. So, look around the airports and the waiting rooms of America in the days ahead and behold “The Associate.” If need be, wrap a Pynchon dust jacket around the spine of your new Grisham and indulge. Before you know it, Kyle McAvoy will be your only care in the world.

Erik Spanberg is a freelance writer in Charlotte, N.C.

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