Books: The Appeal

I have somewhat the same complaint with The Appeal as with the one I reviewed yesterday, that getting out the author’s message seems to have taken priority over telling a good story. In Grisham’s case, that message is about the corruption that results from electing (rather than appointing) judges, as opposing interests pour huge amounts of money into judicial campaigns and force judges to act like politicians.

I have no idea just how true to life the scenarios in Grisham’s book are. In his author’s note at the end, he gives the usual disclaimers that people and organizations in the book are fictional, then points out that there is a lot of truth in the book. Regarding the judicial campaigns, he says that “the tactics are all too familiar” and “the results are not far off the mark.”

I don’t doubt that the kind of corruption he describes exists, and that well-meaning conservative Christians have many times been manipulated by deceitful campaign strategists who know they can get out those votes by bringing up the spectre of homosexuality and gun control. These are the hot button issues used, in this novel, by the people behind the campaign to unseat a moderate justice with a conservative lawyer (who has no experience as a judge – this is an advantage in their eyes because it means he has no record to attack).

Only in the final days of the campaign is it pointed out publicly that the moderate justice is hardly the liberal that her opponent’s ads suggest, and that neither homosexuality nor gun control are likely to ever be issues to come before the court. Only then does the challenger realize how he and the public have been manipulated by those funding his campaign, and only after the election does he learn just how many millions of dollars were funneled into the campaign by big business, mostly from out of state.

As I say, I don’t doubt that such manipulation of the electoral process exists; I simply have no idea how widespread it is. By pitting big business, personified by billionaire Carl Trudeau (a true villain without a single redeeming quality) against trail lawyers (represented by Wes and Mary Grace Payton, who risk – and lose – nearly everything in their fight for justice for the “little guy”), Grisham seems to paint a picture in which large corporations are more likely to be in the wrong than otherwise.

He is hardly wholly sympathetic to the trial lawyers; certainly those trying to make a fortune by mass class action suits come off very poorly in the book. Even the Paytons long for some easy cases that will yield large fees. But as Grisham describes it, the only people looking out for the little guys are the class lawyers, and if big business can buy seats on the state supreme court, the door to the courtroom will have been effectively closed to those with less money.

I’ve read most of Grisham’s novels, and I think he could have written a great novel conveying these same ideas. Corporations have been the bad guys in previous novels, but as I remember, in other books it was some particular corporation and some particular people in those corporations responsible for the nefarious activities. What is different in The Appeal is that while Krane Chemical (controlled by Carl Trudeau) is the primary agent of evil, all of big business is implicated in the campaign to stack the state supreme court.

I would have liked to see more recognition that some corporations are run by people committed to doing what is right. Those corporations might still support a platform of tort reform, out of concern about frivolous lawsuits and exorbitant punitive damages that drive up liability insurance premiums. There is plenty of room for argument over what would be good measures to take in that regard, without assuming big business guilty until proven innocent.

I also would have liked to see more character development, particularly that of the “good guys.” No doubt some description of the obscenely ostentatious lifestyle of Carl Trudeau was needed to establish what a thoroughly selfish and despicable man he is. But once the point was made, the continued focus on it reminded me of “gratuitous violence.” The contrast between good and evil can be made as well by putting the spotlight on the good, not just the bad.

The one person who did show some character development was Ron Fisk, the lawyer chosen for his telegenic appearance and squeaky-clean background, to give Krane Chemical a more favorable hearing when its appeal reaches the supreme court. Initially enamored of his starring role in a well-run and well-financed campaign and the prospect of money and status as a black-robed justice, he begins to question the forces behind the campaign, and eventually to reconsider his judicial philosophy.

But that change begins too late in the book. I am pleased that Grisham depicts him as a man of principle, not easily swayed to abandon long-held convictions due to circumstances and emotional upheaval. His final judicial opinions, before taking a leave of absence (due to a family emergency), suggest that he may well continue to change in his views. I don’t mind that the change is only begun in this book, but rather that hardly anyone or anything else does change.

If Grisham wants to write a political tract, he can write about real people and cases and leave no question about whether what he depicts really happens. If he’s going to write fiction, something he can do very well, I would like to see better character development and fewer caricatures and stereotypes.

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