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Notice: Includes Spoilers! If you are actually masochistic enough to read this book and don't want to know how it ends - assuming you haven't got it figured out by the second chapter - then read no further!

John Grisham: The King of Torts

Of John Grisham's King of Torts, Publisher's Weekly writes, "Grisham continues to impress with his daring, venturing out of legal thrillers entirely for A Painted House and Skipping Christmas (the re-release of which this past fall was itself a bold move) and, within the genre, working major variations. Here's his most unusual legal thriller yet." To this assessment I would add the following: (1) Publisher's Weekly is easily impressed. (2) Within the meaning of this review, "unusual" shall be understood to mean "abysmal."

The King of Torts is the story of Clay Carter, who begins the book as a washed-up District of Columbia public defender, pressed into service by a judge to defend an indigent teenage murder defendant, who shot an acquaintance without having the faintest idea why he did it. Soon after taking the case, Clay is approached by a decidedly shady figure who goes by the name of Max Pace. Pace is hired by large corporations to "put out fires," finding ways to settle potential class actions secretly. Pace has come bearing gifts. Clay's murder defendant, it turns out, was driven to kill by an experimental detox drug manufactured by Pace's client. If Clay ditches his client and settles the anonymous drug company's as-yet nonexistent lawsuit with the families of the victims of the rehab patients who took the drug, he'll get ten million dollars in fees. Clay accepts, and gets a little bonus from Pace for his good work: the inside track on another bad drug, this one capable of netting over a hundred million dollars in attorney fees for Clay. For Clay, his ascent to the mass tort jet set is too good to be true, but he doesn't stop to think about it. Instead, he acquires expensive cars, a private jet, a pricey townhouse in Georgetown, and a new girlfriend who spends his newfound wealth about as quickly as the money can be minted. Of course, all good things must come to an end, and Clay is soon knee deep in legal malpractice lawsuits from that irate clients that he forced to settle in his hundred million dollar case. From there, it all goes downhill: soon, the FBI is paying him visits about some questionable stock deals, the defendant in a class action he expects to net him millions in fees declares bankruptcy, his other money spigots stop gushing, and Max Pace has skipped the country. Facing bankruptcy himself, Clay learns that people who follow their greed often come to a bad end, but still manages to end up with his ex-girlfriend, who walked out on him when he was a broke public defender with no prospects.

This is yet another of Grisham's none-too-subtle morality plays, following in the tradition of such deep, nuanced works as The Brethren and The Summons (in which we learn that honesty is the best policy). However, as a long-time fan of novels such as The Rainmaker, The Chamber, and The Partner, I could have forgiven him his ham-handed and simplistic moralising if it weren't for the other cardinal flaw of his latest offering: the plot.

Ah, yes, the plot. Those four words would seem to encapsulate Grisham's attitude when writing The King of Torts. The actual storyline seems to have been added in as an afterthought. Hundreds of pages go by, glaciers thaw, entire species are born, die out, and evolve into new forms, without a single plot point making its appearance. Not only is the plot ridiculously slow, when a rare plot point does finally emerge from hibernation, it's almost invariably at an absurd point in the story. Pace appears to be as elusive to Grisham as he is to Clay. This story - if one insists on telling it - could have easily been told in half the space without losing anything essential or even entertaining. Instead, Grisham treats us to a very brief introduction - or ""before" picture," if you will - to Clay's life as a low-rent denizen of the Office of the Public Defender, followed by an interminable and repetitious account of Clay's growing fortune. For page after page, Clay amasses more and more money, more and more gaudy accoutrements, gets more and more reckless, and more and more boring. The point of this soporific interlude, to the extent that one can be discerned, is to show us that Clay is letting the money get to his head. But instead of dedicating one or two chapters to Clay's insensate greed and boundless stupidity, Grisham has opted for half a ream of paper dedicated to screaming at us: "HE'S LETTING THE MONEY GET TO HIS HEAD! NOTHING GOOD CAN COME OF THIS! HE'S IN FOR SOMETHING BAD!!!!!!!!"

Of course, with this glacial build-up, the reader could reasonably expect one hell of a payoff at the end. Instead, the reader is treated to an equally level downhill trip. Yes, things gradually go to hell for our old buddy Clay, but is there any change, any character development, any insight into his moral and ethical learning curve? Not in this book. And what of the ingenious elegant solutions that many Grisham protagonists devise to get out of their seemingly insoluble predicaments? That's practically a Grisham trademark. Is Clay going to stick it to his erstwhile associate Max Pace, the feds, and the pharmaceuticals company all at once, while at the same time doing right by the clients he's shafted, all in a way that leaves him completely untouchable?


After all we've endured, our payoff is that Clay declares bankruptcy, moves far, far away, and inexplicably gets back the girlfriend who wisely dumped him for being a loser.

But perhaps a crappy ending is preferable to endless crap.

The jackhammer subtlety of Clay's ascent to mega-avarice is not unlike Grisham's approach to the inevitable moral lesson at the very end of the story. Either Grisham thinks his readers are incredibly dull-witted, or, perhaps this book is intended, to quote The Bard, as "a fucked up short story for punishmental use on retarded kids that touch each other in special places." Was the moral message of the story - one that can be summed up in about a million different clichés - really the point here? Was that what we suffered through almost 400 pages for? Certainly, it wasn't for the mind-blowing surprise ending.

All in all, The King of Torts is lavishly overrated. Inexplicably, some so-called "critics" have positively drooled over this book, calling it, to quote Publisher's Weekly once again, Grisham's "most unusual legal thriller yet. A story whose hero and villain are the same, a young man with the tragic flaw of greed; a story whose suspense arises not from physical threat but moral turmoil, and one that launches a devastating assault on a group of the author's colleagues within the law."

Reading reviews such as these - and there is certainly no shortage - one gets the impression that there might have been a mix-up in the distribution chain, with only the reviewers getting the real book. There simply can be no other explanation. The only part of the Publisher's Weekly review that holds a kernel of truth is the statement that this is Grisham's "most unusual legal thriller yet." This is certainly true, at least in the sense that Grisham's books are usually at the very least somewhat lively and entertaining. But this is where the similarities with reality end. Clay is hardly the breakthrough character - both a hero and a villain, fancy that! - that PR (my apologies for the Freudian slip - I of course mean PW) seems to think. He's not a hero. He's not a villain. He's a moron. Not even a particularly interesting moron. Equally incomprehensible is the reference to "suspense" in KoT. Apart from the fact that Kot is about as "suspenseful" as a glass of warm milk, the alleged source of this "suspense" is positively baffling. Moral turmoil? What moral turmoil? Certainly, Clay spends about a paragraph being somewhat disgusted after his first meeting with the mass tort bar, but, if he has any lasting moral qualms, Grisham keeps them nice and quiet. "Moral turmoil" implies that Clay has an actual personality, instead of simply being a bad caricature. If Clay has any noticeable personality trait, it's his utter lack of introspection, or any other noticeable emotion or thought. Truly, if Clay had any less dimension, he'd be a wafer.

I honestly don't know what anyone would see in this book, but I certainly hope no one is seriously reading it for entertainment, character development, suspense, or even witty dialogue.

The Unabridged Audiobook Version, read by Dennis Boutzikaris

With a novel like this, it would seem silly to waste a lot of money on getting a good reader for the book on tape version. Luckily, Random House Audio realised this and hired Dennis Boutzikaris for the job. Boutzikaris' delivery is almost as one-dimensional as Grisham's story. Nor is that the only issue. Dennis Boutzikaris' narration is so utterly laughable at times that one must wonder whether he is really unable to comprehend Grisham's not-too-heady prose.

Inflection Roulette or Self-Satire?

I tend to gravitate toward the first possibility. Boutzikaris' inflection misses the mark with the consistency and precision of a satellite-guided missile. This cannot be random. If he were choosing his tone and inflection totally at random, one might expect that he'd get it right once in a while. Instead, he manages to miss it every time. There is a certain agony mixed with hilarity that comes from hearing the oddly cheery inflection with which he tells us of a warehouse "that was sometimes used by crack dealers." Wherever a sentence calls for emphasis, he gets it ass-backwards. If a character is enraged, Boutzikaris reads the line in a vaguely whiny nasal monotone.

"Homer, I think we've wandered out of our genre"

If there is anything more painful than listening to Boutzikaris grope for the right emphasis in the simplest of sentences, it's listening to him do the voices. Boutzikaris' voice repertoire is divided roughly evenly amongst (1) voices indistinguishable from his own, (2) whiny nasality, and (3) Moe from The Simpsons. I must admit that it is an unusual experience to be listening to a John Grisham story only to have cartoon characters suddenly and randomly appear.

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