Because of their frenetic pace and mortised plotting, and especially because of their popularity, John Grisham?s books are usually dismissed as mere ?legal thrillers.? Okay, but that?s a little like calling “The Grapes of Wrath” only a ?road novel.? While Grisham may not have John Steinbeck?s literary genius, he does share with him the conscience of a social critic and the soul of a preacher. No matter how smoothly he entertains you (and with each succeeding novel, Grisham?s storytelling becomes tighter, cleaner, more efficient), his fiction is never purely escapist. From the start of his career, he?s been a side taker and a finger pointer, tackling issues from racial injustice and children?s rights to the death penalty, corporate amorality, and, with his latest annual novel, homelessness.
In “The Street Lawyer,” that finger-pointing advocacy can often turn scenes into civics lessons and make an awful lot of dialogue read like op-ed screeds. What the novel lacks in subtlety, though, it more than makes up for in vigor. And besides that, it?s as compelling a read as anything Grisham has produced in the past.
Everything happens with astonishing speed in “The Street Lawyer.” In just 32 days, lawyer Michael Brock is taken hostage, changes careers, ends his soured marriage, swipes a file of sensitive documents, nearly gets killed in a car crash, is arrested and beaten up, tracks down a reluctant witness, and even finds a girlfriend. Grisham’s strong suit has never been character development, a weakness that presents a bit of a problem here. Michael’s transformation from a careerist attorney to a zealous champion of the poor happens, improbably, with the thunderclap swiftness of Saint Paul’s conversion. “The Street Lawyer” may be grounded in urban reality, but Grisham’s storytelling is hardly gritty realism.
Nevertheless, this slickly designed entertainment is still a passionately angry book. America?s most popular novelist seems more determined than ever to try to use his clout to effect social change. And with millions of copies of The Street Lawyer certain to be read, that?s not out of the question.