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September 18, 2023


By Fred Russell

Once in a great while -- every few years or so -- I get desperate for distraction and jump into town to pick up a few thrillers. I usually buy them in threes, because my used book store gives you the third one for free. In this way I recently bought The Racketeer by John Grisham along with novels by Faye Kellerman and John Connolly. Though I'd seen a number of the movies made from Grisham's novels, I only remember having read one of them before, The Runaway Jury, which I'd enjoyed but did not find remarkable in any way. Consequently I was surprised, even astounded, by how good the writing in The Racketeer turned out to be, at least in the opening pages, which show Grisham at his best. I mean the quality of the prose, the clean, precise, perfectly measured sentences, or what might even be called the manly diction. In fact, if Grisham were to put his name to the opening pages of The Sun Also Rises, I wouldn't bat an eye. Here is what he sounds like:

I'm forty-three years old and halfway through a ten-year sentence handed down by a weak and sanctimonious federal judge in Washington, D.C. All of my appeals have run their course, and there is no procedure, mechanism, obscure statute, technicality, loophole, or Hail Mary left in my thoroughly depleted arsenal. I have nothing. Because I know the law, I could do what some inmates do and clog up the courts with worthless motions and writs and other junk filings, but none of them would help my cause. Nothing will help my cause. The reality is that I have no hope of getting out for five more years, save for a few lousy weeks chopped off at the end for good behavior, and my behavior has been exemplary.

In a nutshell, the narrator of The Racketeer, a disbarred lawyer, is serving time for his unwitting involvement in a client's money-laundering operation. About halfway through it he reads that a federal judge has been murdered, tells us that he knows who the murderer is, and contacts the FBI with an offer to reveal the murderer's name in exchange for his release, By page 60 or so, the deal with the FBI looks like it is about to be closed. If I were writing such a novel, I could see myself stretching it out for maybe another 100 pages, Simenonlike, and then tacking on a surprise ending, and that would be it. Grisham gives us nearly 400 pages, and the truth is, the novel becomes somewhat tedious and the prose loses much of its edge as it drags along; but still I have to wonder why someone capable of writing so well bothers to write such novels instead of trying his hand at something that has meaning or value.

I don't believe it's for the money or even the fame. Grisham had a successful career as an attorney before he started writing and even served two terms as a Mississippi state representative. It may seem natural for a literary lawyer to write about lawyers and end up writing legal thrillers almost exclusively, but the option of writing serious fiction is always there for someone who enjoys writing and feels the urge to create a novel. One has to conclude, therefore, that if Grisham didn't choose that option it was only because he lacked the talent for it. Certainly he strikes one as a man who has reflected on life, society, the world. Certainly he has had all the feelings that serious writers experience when they contemplate the world. I would even imagine that certain stories have taken shape in his mind that have had the feel of real literature, but apparently he has backed away from them, lacking the confidence to undertake a literary venture that isn't propped up by a plot. It may be unfair to single out Grisham. He is like a thousand other thriller writers in this respect. But he writes better than most and therefore makes you ask the question.

There is an enormous gap between popular and serious fiction. My guess is that even today most young writers would rather be Tolstoy than Dan Brown, or John Grisham. But they can't, so they settle for a kind of writing that can only be called frivolous, something just a single notch above playing ball for a living, assured that the size of their bank accounts will end all arguments. I would have liked to see John Grisham and some of the others give literature a serious try. Who knows? In any case the adventure of such a journey, the adventure of artistic creation, is one of the most exhilarating experiences a human being can have. It makes the journey worthwhile even if it fails.

Article © Fred Russell. All rights reserved.
Published on 2015-09-28
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