The Associate, by John Grisham

posted Nov 12, 2009, 9:11 PM by Jeff Brandt   [ updated Nov 12, 2009, 11:26 PM ]
Over the course of four years of higher education, college English professors kind of chased out my love of commercial fiction . . . Stephen King, Michael Crichton, Clive Cussler, and the
like. No, we were to value Hemingway and Faulkner, Pynchon and Delillo -- none of that generic garbage being spewed out of printing presses these days. It's like eating junk food, they said. It has no real value and can rot you inside and out.

Well, college is over for me now, and I have time to actually read things not assigned to me without the anxiety of coming up with essay topics and highlighting recurring themes and whatnot as I went along. So, strolling through the Schnucks magazine aisle in late October, I perused the bestsellers and decided it was finally time I read a John Grisham novel, just to say I had. Not knowing a brand new collection of short stories -- Grisham's first -- would come out in hardback a week or two later (Ford County), I picked up The Associate, a published first in January and as a paperback in September.

I don't regret it. It was a quick, easy read, and an engrossing story. As you might expect, the plot is paramount, and character development is often predictable or nonexistant. The sentences are more concerned with function than beauty, and Grisham makes sure to spell out everything of importance. There are some throwaway characters and, arguably, some throwaway scenes. Still, I kept coming back for more. I know that's a generic compliment for a book like this. One you'd see on any cover of any book in Borders. Oh well, though. At least my brain isn't rotting due to reading it. At least I hope not.

The Associate details the plight of Kyle McAvoy, Pennsylvania native and Yale Law graduate. He's got a nice girlfriend, plenty of good buddies from Yale and from his undergrad years. He works hard, knows people in high places, edits the law review, coaches an inner city high school basketball team -- yada yada yada, he's a golden boy. That changes about two minutes into the book, when Kyle spots a suspicious fellow eying him for the last few minutes of a basketball game, staring him down from across the court. Kyle tensens . . . works up a sweat and bolts as soon as the game finishes, only to be accosted by the man and a partner. Rude bullies of men, decked out in crime novel trenchcoats, claiming to be FBI agents kicking up some old charges of sexual assault dating back to his Duquesne University days.

It seems that five years before, Kyle's frat brothers Joey (now engaged with a baby on the way) and Baxter (alcoholic and epic L.A. partier) possessed an unhealthy penchant for poon. They found themselves steeped in shit when the lady-about-campus, Elaine, cried rape. Due to lack of evidence, police dropped the investigation after a short while, and allegations never made their way to a courtroom. To Kyle's great misfortune, though, this problem has returned. When the "agents" meet Kyle at a hotel, one man who calls himself Bennie shocks him into submission with evidence that could tarnish his image for good. Bennie threatens blackmail. He takes his first job in New York at Bennie's firm's arch rival or else Elaine sees a sex tape recorded on a cellphone. Kyle must forfeit his dream of breaking into law at a low-paying nonprofit for the dizzying, overworked hellhole of New York City's biggest, baddest law firm. Unlike the quaint practice of Kyle's father in smalltown PA, the bigwigs
at Scully & Pershing pay plenty, expect even more, and eat fresh college grads for breakfast.

For some time, Kyle questions which is worse: working 80-hour weeks for money-grubbing asshats, or having his mug shot hit the papers as the video plays repeatedly for a jury. He must learn to cope with being assaulted at all turns: showered with mind-numbing legal documents at work and pierced by the electronic eyes of hidden cameras in his own apartment. The question of how and when Kyle will collapse screams through every page of the novel.

Grisham relishes the development of parallel storylines, changing point-of-view mid-page (very frowned upon by Creative Writing professors) and repeat what are essentially the same scenes with different nuances. Kyle's hotel room sessions with Bennie are all similar, as are his secret meetings with Joey (to discuss a plan to foil Bennie), as are his romantic rendevouz with the lovely Dale, a fellow first-year associate at Scully & Pershing. I believe that this could have been condensed into a short story, or maybe a novella. But then that wouldn't be as fun, would it? This method allows Grisham to develop a pattern of interactions, mixing and remixing, speeding up and slowing down the sequences like a scatterbrained DJ. Each cycle, the pieces of the pattern ratchet up the tension a little more than the last, until you reach the conclusion, the moment of crisis. For all the 350+ pages of lead-up, however, the climax feels as though it arrives in a flash and subsides too quickly when compared to the plodding pace of the novel's earlier sections.

There is interesting work here, some of it artful and clever -- worth reading overall. But it tastes like Grisham cooked fine ingredients in the wrong proportions. It's like a bowl of mac and cheese with just a little too much milk . . . Enjoyable and worthy of consumption, but imbalanced in ways that could have been avoided.


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