The Appeal

The Appeal by John Grisham (2008). Doubleday, 355 pages.

It’s been a while since I have read a John Grisham novel. Looking at my bookshelves, the last one I see up there is The King of Torts (2003), and honestly I don’t remember a thing about that one at all. However, I’ve enjoyed a fair number of his books – A Time to Kill, The Firm, The Pelican Brief – pretty much all of them up until The Summons, which I found repetitive of his earlier stuff yet less entertaining. And apparently he’s written a number of non-legal fiction books since the turn of this century, which don’t interest me in the least. Frankly, Grisham is just not a good enough writer to be interesting outside of his milieu.

Even in the very specialized genre of legal thrillers, Girsham has always, to my mind, not stacked up to Scott Turow, who although far less prolific, is a much better author. Unfortunately for Turow, only Presumed Innocent really made its mark on the bestseller lists, and he has nowhere near the name recognition that Grisham has.

However, I was intrigued by the book blurb for The Appeal, and thought that maybe a few years away from legal thrillers might have tightened Grisham’s work up a bit. So I bought it the same day I bought Stephen King’s latest and called it a bestseller twofer.

The new Stephen King turned out to be a blast, and I’ll be writing about it here soon. The Appeal, on the other hand, has got to be one of the most turgid, stereotypical novels I have read in a long time.

The plot of The Appeal is quite good: A giant chemical company, guilty of illegally dumping toxic waste in a small Southern town, loses a lawsuit brought by a woman whose husband and son were both killed by drinking water in the same town. The woman’s lawyers have nearly gone bankrupt fighting the giant chemical company, and in a great victory, the jury sides with them against the giant company and awards damages of 41 million dollars. The head of the chemical company, who would rather lose billions that pay a dime to white trash, engages a secret consulting firm to change the makeup of the state supreme court – thus ensuring that the chemical company will win… The Appeal.

What a great story! How could that possibly not be fun?

Here’s how. Everything in this book is so predictable, it might as well have been an episode of Perry Mason. The good guys are so good that you want to slap them: A married couple, both lawyers, with two adorable children. They’re so determined to help the poor woman that they sold their home and ran themselves $400,000 into debt just to finance the lawsuit. The wife is actually from the same horrible little Southern town that the lawsuit victim is from. They run a colorful little law firm where everyone works for no pay because they’re all so… well, good.

The villain, on the other hand, is so evil he makes Darth Vader look like Santa Claus. He’s so evil that he literally does not care if thousands of people died from his waste, as long as he doesn’t have to pay them one thin dime. He willingly spends 8 million dollars on a horrible sculpture to keep his new trophy wife happy and to get a mention in the morning paper. To him, spending 3 million to change the state Supreme Court of Louisiana is not unethical or wrong in any way, and he gives no thought to it at all – it’s just business.

About every third page or so, I would actually mutter, “hooo boy”, under my breath. What, is the villain going to boil a puppy in the next chapter? Are the husband and wife lawyers going to take in some orphans? John Grisham may be many things, but believe me, subtle ain’t one of them.

And worst of all, the book ends… exactly the way it looks like it would end in the first chapter. There are no twists, no changes of heart. One character – the hapless sap whom the evil consulting firm targeted to be on the Supreme Court – does have a sort of, kind of, life changing moment near the end of the book.. which results in absolutely nothing changing at all.

Predictable at the beginning. Predictable all the way through. And predictable (and boring) at the end. This was really a letdown. I mean, The Firm was genuinely fun, had some conflicted characters, and had a great twist ending. Most of the other Grisham books from the 90’s were similartly engaging. But not this one.

Unless you like your reading safe, predictable, and very pulpy, avoid The Appeal like the plague. I’m sure they’ll make a movie out of it, which is bound to be better than this book. In fact, I’m looking forward to it… because it will surely be one of the few occasions when I’ll be able to say “Oh, the book was much worse!”

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