Do we need any more evidence than the last 20 years' worth of best-seller lists of the huge human longing — specifically, the huge American human longing — for entertaining and sustained fictional narrative? In other words, for popular novels?
Time after time writers like John Grisham and Stephen King publish fiction, and the books go immediately to the top of the best-seller lists. If their novels seem thin in language and character when compared with the finest productions of our greatest writers — Herman Melville, William Faulkner and Willa Cather, for example — all I can say is that we do not live by meals of filet mignon and fancy desserts alone. Sometimes you crave the best hamburger in America.
Opening the first page of a new novel by a popular writer who is working at the top of his powers is like watching the movie screen as the lights go down. You are the projector, running your eyes across the lines of type, and throwing onto the screen of your imagination the best entertainment in town. The delightful news is that writers like King and Grisham seem to be getting better and better.
Here is "The Litigators," something like novel No. 20 for the former attorney from Oxford, Miss., and Charlottesville, Va. It is a nimble and enjoyable piece of entertainment about the legal world, a world some of us will find ourselves entangled with at least once — if not several times — in our lifetimes, and how it intersects with the world of ordinary citizens in everyday life.
In this case, it's the story of a tiny, two-person Chicago law firm, Finley & Figg. These are ambulance chasers who see themselves as making up a "boutique" law partnership even as they advertise in bowling alleys and on the sides of buses. As the novel opens they take on a third member, David Zinc, a Harvard-trained lawyer who, while fleeing a fancy, high-paying firm downtown, goes on a binge and ends up drunk and tired on the doorstep of their office, seeking employment. Around the same time the funky little firm finds itself, almost accidentally, in the middle of an exciting — and expensive — case involving a supposedly dangerous new pharmaceutical product.
Finley and Figg are not very successful litigators. As we hear, from Zinc's perspective, "litigators were a breed apart, wild men who gambled with huge sums of money, took enormous risks, and lived on the edge. … That was the urban legend, anyway." One of these Chicago shysters is a miserably married man deep in debt. The other is an alcoholic who, over the course of the novel's first half, barters legal assistance for sexual favors.
Ingenue Zinc has never even been in a federal courtroom, let alone tried a case in one. But as the case — and the plot — builds to a crescendo, he avidly observes the litigation between Big Pharma and little Finley & Figg, litigation in which he becomes more and more deeply entwined. As Grisham observes, "The more he watched, the more fascinated he became with the art of a trial."
You will, too, dear reader, even as you suffer the splendid unease of squirming in distress as you read and wonder just how it will all turn out. Great novels involve you in the deep thicket of the deepest meanings of life. Popular novels can sometimes, as it happens in the fiction of John Grisham, teach you a great deal about the everyday world in which you live. Or, as in this case, in which you sue someone.
By John Grisham
Doubleday, 385 pages, $28.95