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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 their machinations.

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 campaign.

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 is.

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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