Onyx reviews: The
Appeal by John Grisham
There has been a certain degree of inevitability to many of John Grisham's
recent legal thrillers. Once the conflict is established, the plot advances
without many deviations from a predictable trajectory.
In The Appeal, Grisham toys with reader expectations—but only a little. On
the surface, it looks like the story will play out like this: The
husband-and-wife law firm of Payton & Payton wins its biggest case ever, a
$41 million judgment against Krane Chemical Corporation for dumping toxic waste
into Bowmore, Mississippi's water supply, causing cancer rates ten times the
national average (inviting comparisons to Erin Brockovich). The chemical
company, recently decamped to Mexico, will trot out a series of dirty tricks to
win the appeal. Something untoward will happen at the eleventh hour to thwart
The appeal won't be heard for months. Before then, elections could alter the
balance of power in the state's Supreme Court. A consultant hired by Carl
Trudeau, Krane's CEO, senses that Judge Sheila McCarthy, one of the Court's more
moderate (i.e. not conservative) judges, is vulnerable so he invests millions of
dollars to have the judge replaced with a hand-picked candidate who will shift
the Court's traditional split in a more favorable direction. Trudeau would
rather spend his money destroying his opponents than compensating them. Besides,
as he discovers, it's cheaper to buy an election than settle.
The Appeal is very much a David and Goliath story, except David knew he what
he was facing and got to confront his nemesis. The Paytons have no idea what
lengths Trudeau is willing to go to keep the judgment from being affirmed. They
have a slew of other clients lined up and ready to sue if they win the appeal.
Another lawyer is putting together a class action case for tertiary victims of
the bad water. (As in King of Torts, this lawyer is painted with a different
brush than the Paytons. Grisham clearly isn't a fan of class actions.) Trudeau
is determined that not a penny of his money will go to any of them.
The Paytons have given up their home to finance the lawsuit and are in debt
up to the crowns of their heads. Their cut of the judgment will save them from
bankruptcy and allow them to catch up on delinquent employee salaries; however,
no one will see a penny pending the outcome of the appeal, so they divide their
attention between preparing for the crucial hearing and taking new cases that
will bring them quick and much-needed cash. They are mostly oblivious to the
huge, well-oiled machine preparing to crush them.
The focus of the story shifts to that machine, helmed by Barry Rinehart, the
shadowy consultant who specializes in influencing elections. Ron Fisk is the
na´ve young lawyer—he bears a vague resemblance to Chief Justice John
Roberts—Rinehart chooses to replace Judge McCarthy. Fisk has no judicial
experience but he accepts Rinehart's proposition after a brief period of
introspection. He is quickly caught up in the euphoria of his surging popularity
once his candidacy is announced, and seduced by the heady world of private jets,
meetings with federal senators and huge corporations clamoring to fund his
Only a small percentage of Mississippi's residents could pick even one of the
sitting judges out of a lineup (though many have served for nearly a decade),
and voter participation in these elections is traditionally low. Mobilizing a
sympathetic bloc of voters is all someone needs to do to change the outcome. The
Rinehart—orchestrated campaign runs the expected gamut from polite discussions
of issues to innuendo and mud-slinging. McCarthy, who expected to run unopposed,
is caught off guard when she is branded a flaming liberal and every word she
ever issued in a judgment is turned against her. Her war chest is almost empty
and most of the campaign money in the state is flowing toward her rival, who has
no published record to be used against him
It's obvious that Fisk will win the election; otherwise the book would
fizzle. The entertainment value comes in observing the diverse and innovative
ways Rinehart games the political system. Grisham also ratchets up the suspense
by having Rinehart turn some of his attention to ruining the Paytons to cover
all his bases.
With Fisk on the Supreme Court, the outcome of the appeal seems guaranteed,
as his campaign platform criticized "inflated" damage awards. However,
Grisham orchestrates a convenient crisis of conscience for the newly elected
jurist, then gambles with his readers' sympathies by going in an unexpected
direction in the book's closing chapters.
Complex, subtle characterization has never been Grisham's forte. Wes and Mary
Grace Payton are utopian ideals, stoic, and steadfast even though their lives
have taken a downward spiral since they agreed to represent Jeanette Baker
against Krane Chemical. Nearly half a million dollars in debt, they eat macaroni
and cheese, live in a dingy apartment and find reasons to smile through it all.
Since they constantly have to react to the actions of others, though, they
aren't strong protagonists. The plot proceeds without them for significant
portions of the book while Grisham expounds on the actions of Rinehart and Fisk.
Baker, who lost her husband and her son to cancer caused by Bowmore's odious
water (strips paint from cars and burns when dumped on a fire), is the story's
nominal motivator, but readers come away with little understanding of who she
The villain, Trudeau, is painted in one shade: black. He is irredeemably
greedy, and has all the accoutrements of the rich and obnoxious, including the
requisite extravagant, surgically-enhanced trophy wife who he just barely
tolerates (and vice versa). He takes pride in becoming one of the few men in
history to lose a billion dollars (on paper) in one day, and connives to reverse
his fortunes at the cost of anyone who stumbles across his path. Rinehart is
amoral, infallible, and little more. Fisk is perhaps the most sophisticated
character—he actually grapples with personal issues before and during the
campaign—but his naivetÚ reflects poorly on him.
Readers will come away from The Appeal with little doubt about the point
Grisham is trying to make. His anger at the way money influences the electoral
system seethes from every page. That he has chosen an election year to drive
this point home makes it all the more heavy-handed. His claims will likely raise
the eyebrows of some of his readers and alienate others. He might have made the
point more directly in a well-honed essay or a non-fiction book. As it stands,
the book comes off strident and preachy, and, once he delivers his final blow,
he loses all interest in the characters, thinly drawn though they may be, who
served him through the book's first 300 pages.
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