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Onyx reviews: The
Broker by John Grisham
Rarely does John Grisham reach a banal middle ground where he is entertaining
but irrelevant. The Broker represents such an achievement. The novel
isn't issue-driven and has little tangible tension, even though the CIA, FBI,
Mossad, Saudis, Russians, and Chinese are all hunting the protagonist. More than
anything else, The Broker is a good advertisement for the northern
Italian travel industry.
Joel Backman is the broker, a Washington lawyer, lobbyist and vendor of
political access. Greed ensnarled him in a scheme involving a trio of young
Pakistani hackers who gained control of a previously undetected network of
high-tech surveillance satellites. When his plan to sell access to the highest
bidder unraveled, people started dying. Joel pled guilty in a deal that sent him
to a safe prison for twenty years in return for having all other
indictments-including one against his son-dropped.
Six years later, Joel is a shadow of his former self. Government agencies want
to know and contain his secrets. He is kept in solitary confinement and fed
gruel in a cold, bleak cell. Sensing an opportunity, the CIA encourages an
outgoing lame duck president to pardon Joel. They relocate him to a foreign
country, planning to announce his location to foreign governments who might have
been involved in the satellite fiasco to see which one kills him first.
That's mostly just backstory. The bulk of the book takes place in northern
Italy, where Luigi, Joel's handler, coaches him in his new life. Joel gets a
crash course in Italian to flesh out his new identity as a Canadian returning to
his birthplace. His apartment is bugged and wired; even his government-issued
clothing contains transponders. Though he is technically a free man, he's in
constant danger and no one must discover where he is, he's told, except Grisham
never conveys much of a sense of threat. Luigi tries to keep Joel on edge,
afraid for his life, but this is mostly subterfuge to keep him on a short leash.
What makes The Broker worth reading is the story of Joel's
indoctrination into northern Italian culture. He learns such morsels of wisdom
as the fact that Italians never partake of cappuccino after 10:30 am because the
rich drink would interfere with subsequent meals. Each day, Luigi escorts Joel
to a different place for lunch or dinner, and the multi-course, almost
ritualistic, meals are described in sumptuous detail, so full of smells and
tastes that readers may be tempted to take a break to visit their local Italian
restaurant to sample some of the entrees.
His Italian-language coach, a beautiful but mysteriously aloof woman named
Francesca, takes him around the city to describe the history and beauty of its
many sites as part of his instruction. The book could almost be renamed A
Year in Bologna, except that Joel only manages two months in the historic
city before he decides to break out of what is really just another kind of
prison to redeem his character. Joel is likeable enough, though a sketch of his
shady past would probably make him seem more like a villain than a hero. As with
all Grisham protagonists, he is incredibly resourceful and capable of outwitting
seasoned intelligence agents.
The final section of the book is a classic Grisham chase, but once Joel's on the
run there's little doubt that his trajectory will take him out of harm's way. The Broker is light entertainment, though possibly high on calories.
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