Forget what you’ve been hearing about John Grisham’s new book Gray Mountain, being an issue novel, “an angry and important” one (per the Washington Post), or that it finally features his second female protagonist so many years after the environmental novel Pelican Brief. Yes, it’s true that there is a female main character (and a supporting cast of female lawyers and paralegals). It’s also true that the novel is about important issues – environmentalism and strip mining. But there’s much more to this new Grisham.
This is Southern Gothic – and it’s surprisingly good.
It’s 2008 and Georgetown/Columbia Law grad Samantha has it all – a big law job, a slick SoHo loft, partnership potential. Then Lehman Brothers happens and she’s from the manor born to the boondocks sent. To Brady, Virginia to be exact – deep in the heart of coal country where modern day debtors’ prisons still exist for those too poor or too addicted to pay their fines while coal companies pollute the land and reorganize before they can be held to account.
She’s cut from her firm with vague promises of a job if the world economy doesn’t slip into depression or worse. The partners’ idea of a severance package is a year’s worth of health insurance if she agrees to take an unpaid legal sabbatical with a non-profit. The Brady free legal clinic is the only non-profit on the long list willing to take a risk on a newbie lawyer who has never seen the inside of a courtroom, much less sat with a poor and terrified client seeking the most basic of legal aid.
As Samantha speeds from Washington, D.C. toward Brady in a little red Toyota Prius, she gets her first taste of how the different the world she’s heading for is. A misfit masquerading as law enforcement pulls her over and takes her in. Romey, the misfit, Mattie, a pink spike haired legal aid lawyer, and an assorted cast of unique, believable characters populate this novel.
If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to practice in a small town on the brink of disaster, representing clients without much hope for salvation, this atmospheric, dark and oddly funny book is highly recommended.
Grisham gets how unfair life can be for the poor and the powerless. There is an odd disconnect between Grisham the writer, whose sympathies are abundantly on display in Gray Mountain, and Grisham the defender of middle aged white drunk child porn downloaders, who appeared tone-deaf to the plight of runaway, abused teens coerced into the porn industry in a recent Guardian interview. Redemption, that Southern Gothic promise, may lie in this novel. Read it.