Celebrity novelist John Grisham is to legal artifice and righteous failing what Lucius Annaeus Seneca was to stoic philosophy — and, still is — the difference being of degree.
Grisham challenges to triumph by nurturing the nerve to flunk; the cabal to him is neither the ground nor the consequence of belief. His job is to write well, jumbling, or combining — a masterly understanding of actuality with fine corporeal scheduling and procedural skill.
Grisham’s high road to success has been like the man himself — a refined chemistry of articulate thought process and profound impact on his genre. That is to do one’s best — and, the rewards will flow.
For a man who started his own journey into print, not as Grisham, John struggled to become a published author while he was still a public-interest lawyer with a modest practice. He sent 26 publishers the manuscript of his first novel, A Time to Kill, a story about a black American father who avenges his daughter’s rape by two white men. A now-defunct publishing house bought the book for US$15,000, over thirty years ago, albeit the reviews were not buoyant. Nine years after that, Grisham hit the jackpot. The movie rights for his maiden novel — on the bestseller list for over 100 weeks — sold for a whopping US$6 million, eclipsing his previous “best” of US$3.75 million for film rights for The Chamber. Interestingly, TheChamber continues to gross in revenue till this day — what with over four million copies sold in paperback alone. Add to this its sales aggregate of over 2 million in hardback, and all is “Grisham” to the publishers’ mill.
What makes Grisham [born, February 8, 1955] tick is his classy propensity for evil, double-cross, and mayhem. He’s been consistent too, and presented himself as a moralist. His novels are rectitude personified with accumulated wallops. An element of his secret — in general — comes from his legal background, where his protagonist fights for their own survival, “positioned” as they are in opposition to the root of all depravity — powerful, self-content, and corrupt, employers. No wonder, Grisham’s hero has quite regularly been a lawyer with a huge drawback — young, poor, and idealistic.
Grisham’s stories may not sound extraordinarily great, from the pure, literary standpoint, but the writer in them has been endowed with an extraordinary gift for story-telling — a potion that makes readers’ heartbeat race as they read him along. Take, for instance, The Rainmaker, the “best” of his later works — and, the first courtroom thriller since A Time to Kill. It has everything a good novel ought to have, and more. It makes clichés soar to great heights — nothing succeeds like “succ-excess.” And, if there’s no specific slang for books or writers whose works are lapped up as soon as they hit the stands, TheRainmaker bids fair to that believable idea, with its fascinating beat-the-clock courtroom story. Grisham’s fans may not necessarily agree with such a generalisation, though they are no strangers to their idol’s novelistic resolutions. This is only understandable — even if one does not want to make a big hubbub about it.
Picture this. The backdrop of The Rainmaker, where Grisham’s “cause celebre” is wholly conceivable: Rudy Baylor is yet another cute-kid legal eagle. He’s required to give free legal advice to a group of senior citizens. When he meets his first “clients,” Dot and Buddy Black, in his final semester of law school, he is baffled. The Blacks’ son, Ray, is dying of leukaemia, and their insurance company has brusquely refused to pay for his medical treatment. Baylor, who is equivocal, and trained not to take things at face value, soon learns that the huge company has, indeed, senselessly treated the Blacks.
Grisham triumphs once again, as always. He convinces the reader that even the most shocking argument hinges on some inhumane dimension. Baylor thinks that he may have stumbled upon one of the largest frauds anyone’s ever seen in the annals of civil litigation. As Grisham’s dart hits the bull’s eye, the reader is forced to willy-nilly root firmly for the state’s right to do the world a favour, and bring the erring company to task. The best part, albeit not surprisingly, Baylor is jobless and flat broke. He hasn’t even passed the bar. To top it all, he’s about to face head-on a flotilla of the best defence attorneys and powerful conglomerates.
It’s here that Grisham’s charm works best. He brings in a good deal of history, most of it recent in medical lexicon, and plenty of it unresolved. The novel becomes him — a good, riveting read. There’s also no denying Grisham’s hold on his genre — a wand that has the wherewithal to avoiding the law of averages. Well, the fact also is, he’s emerged time and again with it as a winner, at the expense of a golden rule of the legal profession: if you’re doing your job properly, you’ll always be in trouble. What’s more, a good guy like Grisham has no such dilemma with words.
Grisham is truly an author of the top draw. He has raked in more than US$17 million for The Rainmaker alone. As he himself put it, matter-of-factly, once, “Having a bestseller is so much fun.” If this isn’t genius, what is? Grisham has laughed his way to the bank, all right, what with a string of bestsellers, which includes The Firm, The Pelican Brief, The Client, The Runaway Jury, The Partner, The Street Lawyer, The Testament, The Brethren, A Painted House, Camino Island, his most recent, also his thirtieth novel — an astonishing saga of heist and rapprochement — and, The Rooster Bar, his newest legal thriller, a gripping saga of a law firm on shaky ground, among others, which were as good a read as any of his other novels.
Yet, the big surprise came when Grisham changed his track, and took a major risk, with The Testament. In the process, he gave up his winning composite and presented us with a religious certitude. In The Testament, Grisham brings god upfront. It’s a turf Grisham was not really familiar with. It’s unlike him — not his customary world of good and evil, candour, justice and human probity. The Testament doesn’t have rich lawyers and businessmen ensconced in their plush air-conditioned offices. Nor, poor clients and victims portrayed in abject poverty, or misery. Yet, Grisham readers weren’t in for any disappointment. He continued to hold their interest, thanks to his ken for story-telling and brevity of words.
In The Testament, Grisham takes us to remote Brazil a la Graham Greene. It’s a tale of litigation and of a will bequeathed to an heir, whose whereabouts are furtive, and who has no interest in the money, wedded as she is to the tranquil life of a missionary. But, the dough is life for the others. “They” have got to find her in the Brazilian jungle, and solve the will conundrum. To achieve that end, Grisham throws in his trump card: a bright advocate, who’s on the verge of going insolvent, thanks to his fondness for dope.
The narrative may be predictable — yes. It may also be without Greene’s sublime talent for rivetingly easy prose. Grisham’s “limitations” fall flat, for once, because they just don’t have the “ammo” to mine into the wraith of his characters’ souls. Yet, it goes without saying that The Testament is, by no means, a debacle. It has it all: avaricious family, rapacious lawyers, et al. It certainly sent a note of caution to Grisham. It literally “urged” him to go back to his terra firma — the legal woods of America, not Brazilian swampland.
Grisham, a sensible man, may have read the writing on the wall, and in print, quickly. But, he thought he could experiment — and, the best part is he got away with it. Successfully. Nobody could blame him for taking such a primary gamble, what with his phenomenal statistical roll-call. What’s more, he got on with the act vis-à-vis A Painted House, a tale enthused by his own childhood — a moving saga of one boy’s voyage from virtuousness to awareness — and, a success story.
To cull another example. The Brethren was no less Grisham’s most daring novel, what with its two diverse sub-plots. While the first focused on three imprisoned ex-judges, upset by their loss of clout and authority, and how they fabricated a convoluted blackmail design to track wealthy, secretive gay men, the second story outlined the emergence of presidential candidate Aaron Lake — a pawn, to all intents and purposes, created by CIA director Teddy Maynard to fulfil his own plans for re-establishing the influence of his careworn organisation. Inference? Whatever the plot, Grisham spells magic, what with, perhaps, 100 million copies of all his books, in print, worldwide.
Or, take, for example, his thirteenth novel, Skipping Christmas. Grisham was at it, again, as he took a searchingly different look at the holiday season. Result: a decent, but funny tale about Christmas Eve. The story revolves around a typical middle-aged couple, Luther and Nora Krank, who, after Thanksgiving, wave their daughter Blair off to Peru to work for the Peace Corps. It is then that they suddenly realise that “for the first time in her young and sheltered life Blair would spend Christmas away from home.” Luther, who sees his daughter’s absence, as an opportunity, figures, that, “a year earlier, the Krank family had spent US$6,100 on Christmas,” and had “precious little to show for it.” Hence, he makes an administrative resolve: “We won’t do Christmas.” So, Luther books a 10-day Caribbean cruise. But, things start to turn nasty. It is at this point that Grisham builds up an entertaining, but increasingly alarming picture of how a close-knit community turns on the Kranks. As the tension mounts, readers are taken on a classy journey — of what makes neighbours good neighbours, especially in the wake of an impromptu Christmas bash.
Skipping Christmas, indeed, was a departure from his legal thrillers. It was adapted into a motion picture. His Bleachers, a semi-autobiographical book — related to high school football — was a successful work, just like The Summons, The King of Torts, The Last Juror, The Broker, The Scyamore Row, The Gray Mountain, TheRogue Lawyer, and The Whistler, among others.
Grisham, who once ran for the state legislature and won a brace of terms, lives in a conventionally built Victorian mansion in an 80-acre farm in Oxford, Mississippi. He has dabbled with a magazine of his own — and, reportedly pumped in US$5 million to nourish it. This is all part of his search for his own spectrum of consciousness. Yet, he is still Grisham, son of a construction worker, who only now has a lot of money — something he had never even seen, or heard, in his childhood. However, critics are not amused. They find glitches in his characters, not his page-turning narrative. They often consider his characters as one-dimensional, unfilled, and without depth. Critics or no critics, Grisham is not perturbed with such observations. He thinks he’s the luckiest guy he has himself ever known. He ought to be, because he knows it; so do we.
Analysts estimate Grisham’s income, this year, at more than US$85 million. He’s a one-man industry — big business. Yet, he doesn’t really worry about expectations — a Grisham blockbuster, every spring. Says he: “The only pressure I put on myself is to write the best book I can write...” A devoted family man who’s as charming as one of his distant cousins, Bill Clinton, Grisham’s success is a classic story.
Grisham’s books have been translated into 30 languages. He’s also been a successful scriptwriter, with a host of screenplays, and half-a-dozen film adaptations. That’s all worth a tug or two for someone whose “hobby” is writing.
At 63, Grisham is one among a select few novelists with a handful of websites dedicated to him. Interestingly, however, Grisham, despite his amazing celebrity status, does not do commercials. He just wants to be a writer — a writer with a mind, and message, of his own. Yet, one thing is certain. He will focus on novels, in the foreseeable future too, at his standard rate of almost one a year — or, so long as he has prospective stories.
To cull his own nugget: “If I didn’t have a story, I wouldn’t write a book.”