Onyx reviews: The
Brethren by John Grisham
This is shaping up to be a banner year for John Grisham and his fans. He
currently has books on top of the paperback bestseller list (The
Testament) and the hardcover list (The Brethren) and is in the early
phases of releasing another novel serially through monthly installments in The
Oxford American (A Painted House). While only
the first installment of his serial novel has been seen so far, it shows a great
deal of promise.
The Brethren starts out with more promise than many of Grisham's
recent novels, as well. Grisham ventures into Tom Clancy territory with a story
of political intrigue and espionage. CIA Director Teddy Maynard has selected
Aaron Lake, a low-profile congressman from Arizona, to be the next president of
the United States. Maynard is privy to inside information that indicates a
dangerous resurgence of communism in the former Soviet Union and it is his
belief that the US is ill-prepared to reenter the cold war. He intends to groom
Lake as his hawk, a strong advocate of reaccelerating U.S. defense spending. The
timing of the release of this novel, to correspond with the current presidential
campaign is a nice piece of synchronicity.
A large part of the novel focuses on Maynard's manipulations as he pulls
every string possible to subvert the normal nomination and electoral process to
ensure that Lake is the Republican nominee and, ultimately, the next President.
Maynard is not beyond resorting to orchestrating terrorist activity to frighten
the American populace into throwing its support behind Lake's single-message
platform: double military spending over the next four years. Lake enters the
campaign late as a dark horse, but quickly becomes a front-runner when his
message of doom-and-gloom seems eerily prescient in light of overseas events.
Running in parallel is the story of "the Brethren," three judges
doing time at Trumble, a minimum security prison for white collar criminals.
Their crimes are diverse: vehicular manslaughter, tax evasion, embezzlement.
They are not doing hard time at Trumble, though. They convene a weekly tribunal
wherein they hear and adjudicate the petty squabbles among other inmates. They
do a tidy underground business attempting to get the prison sentences of others
They are also running "the Angola scam." They have placed a
personal ad in a national gay magazine encouraging older men to respond to a
fictitious younger man. An outside investigator helps them winnow out affluent
and vulnerable men from the thirty or forty they have on the hook at any one
time. Men that are able to pay tens of thousands of dollars to keep their secret
life safely closeted.
Inevitably, the two story lines cross when Aaron Lake responds to the
Brethren's ad. The judges do not know who their new target is, but Maynard
becomes aware of the plot and uses his agency to intercede without Lake's
This is where the novel begins to unravel. Maynard is the sort of man who can
make people disappear without a trace, without a question. Yet, he seems stymied
at how to handle the judges. The resolution to the dilemma is thoroughly
unsatisfying. A reader would be forgiven for wondering if there had been a
binding error in the book and that a chapter or two had been omitted from the
end of the novel, a printer's error. The storyline of Lake's candidacy
evaporates without resolution and the threat of the resurrecting Communist party
in Russia is likewise abandoned. Tom Clancy, for all his weaknesses as a writer,
would never have left a book up in the air like this.
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