'The Associate' by John Grisham

Legal profession takes in on the chin -- again

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Too strapped to pay for your son or daughter's law school tuition?

Hand over "The Associate" and bookmark the pages about the attrition rates of Wall Street rookies, how firms have dress codes for the weekend and how an associate is a rock star because he billed 21 hours in a single day.

   
"THE ASSOCIATE"

By John Grisham
Doubleday ($27.95)

   

Pittsburgh readers of John Grisham's new novel might be distracted from the accounts of life at the law firms because it employs a fictitious sex scandal involving drunken Duquesne University students.

A cell-phone video of the incident is used to blackmail the hero, Kyle McAvoy, top student and Yale Law Journal editor, into taking a job with the world's largest law firm in Manhattan. He's placed there to steal documents in a case involving the development of an Air Force bomber with $800 billion at stake.

Grisham recently told Post-Gazette Staff Writer Torsten Ove that he chose Pittsburgh because he's a big Steelers and Pirates fan, so he drops in enough local references to make the setting convincing. He sprinkles in mentions of Homewood Cemetery, the fountain at Point State Park, the Pirates' endless losing streak and Channel 4.

The story, though, is about Kyle being forced under threat of disclosure and disgrace over a 2003 sexual encounter between his frat friends and a promiscuous coed to take that law position.

He's a second-generation lawyer whose father, John, sounds like a cross between Atticus Finch and Ben Matlock. He called himself a street lawyer who considered the law a calling.

Nobody pulls the curtain back on the great and powerful Oz -- the legal profession -- like Grisham. With the exception of a return to the courtroom in his previous incarnation as an attorney in 1996 to represent the family of a killed railroad brakeman, Grisham devotes most of his time to writing and turns out a book a year.

Either the profession hasn't changed much, he keeps abreast of it or every attorney with a juicy anecdote knows where to send it.

Somehow I suspect that a passage about a female attorney -- "notorious because she had once required two associates to wait in the delivery room while she was temporarily sidetracked giving birth" -- was inspired by a real workaholic.

Having said that, the thriller's criminal underpinnings seem more manufactured and artificial than usual, and the ending is more whimper than bang.

I suspect that if a movie is made out of the novel -- and a report in Variety said Paramount has signed William Monahan, "The Departed" screenwriter, to adapt with Shia LaBeouf in the lead -- that the suspense will be juiced a bit, even though the story already includes a murder.

No Grisham book is a bad read but I most enjoy the ones that marry entertainment with education about a subject, as with "The King of Torts."

For Grisham, "The Associate" represents a return to "The Firm," which launched a legal thriller empire.

Lightning and first love don't strike twice but once again, Grisham allows the reader to identify with the little guy, even if he is a Yalie pulling down $200,000 annually, but wishing he could have settled for the $32,000 a year gig helping migrant workers.


Post-Gazette movie editor Barbara Vancheri can be reached at bvancheri@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1632.


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