Grisham's latest fiction provokes Duquesne University
January 30, 2009 5:00 AM
Author John Grisham
By Torsten Ove Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
A fictitious episode involving Duquesne University students is the central plot device of the new John Grisham legal thriller, but it's not exactly the kind of publicity an image-conscious Catholic school welcomes.
"The Associate" features an alleged sexual assault by drunk fraternity boys in an off-campus apartment.
Duquesne is not thrilled.
"As would any institution," spokeswoman Rose Ravasio said in a statement, "we think it's unfortunate that he chose to use our name and associate it with a fictional incident of this nature, especially when Duquesne students are generally known for their leadership and integrity."
In an e-mail yesterday, Mr. Grisham said he chose Duquesne simply because he'd seen the campus once. He said he's been here many times to take in Pirates and Steelers games.
"It was not my intent or desire to embarrass Duquesne University or make anyone there feel uncomfortable," he said. "This is a fictional story that takes place off of the campus."
The main character of "The Associate," Kyle McAvoy, is an idealistic Yale law school student from York who went to Duquesne on a basketball scholarship. When the novel opens, he's coaching minority kids in New Haven and planning to take a job in Virginia helping migrant workers.
But, as often happens in Mr. Grisham's world, Kyle becomes the focus of sinister forces seeking to blackmail him for their own ends using a dark secret from his Duquesne days five years earlier.
During a party in 2003, it turns out, he took part in some kind of sexfest with three of his fraternity buddies and a student from Scranton that may have turned into a rape, although no one can remember anything clearly because they were all drunk.
Someone recorded the incident on a cell phone camera.
That video becomes the key piece of evidence that a mystery man named Bennie, who initially poses as head of the Pittsburgh police sex crimes squad, uses as leverage to secure Kyle's cooperation in a convoluted scheme involving a lawsuit and defense contractors building a new Air Force bomber.
Some Duquesne supporters may be particularly sensitive about gang-rape scenarios because of a real incident a quarter century ago.
In 1984, four basketball players were charged with raping an 18-year-old business student and dangling her from a window. Three were acquitted and prosecutors dropped charges against the fourth.
In "The Associate," the Pittsburgh police investigate the assault but don't have enough evidence to charge anyone.
Mr. Grisham, however, said he hadn't known about that 1984 case.
Duquesne isn't the only Pittsburgh connection. Mr. Grisham sprinkles other city references throughout the tale.
One of the frat boys involved in the alleged assault is a spoiled sot from old Pittsburgh money; another is a Pirates fan who laments their losing ways; some characters meet near the fountain in Point State Park.
And the Steelers naturally get a few mentions.
"I chose Pittsburgh because I am a big fan of the Steelers and Pirates," Mr. Grisham said. "Franco Harris and Roberto Clemente are two of my all-time favorite stars. And I have enjoyed many games in Pittsburgh."
But it's Duquesne that gets a black eye, at least in the university's opinion.
In one passage about the day of the possible rape, an April 25 when the thermometer hits an unseasonable 85, Mr. Grisham writes that the Duquesne kids "start drinking in the afternoon and have big plans to drink all night."
Neither Mr. Grisham nor his publisher approached the school about using the Duquesne name.
But as a novelist, he's free to make up whatever he wants and he's legally protected.
"Names, characters, businesses, organizations, places, events, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously," the book's disclaimer says. "Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental."
Torsten Ove can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1510.