Hey – remember when I correctly pointed out that Dan Brown's Angels & Demons was wretched, insulting nonsense, and everyone yelled at me? The consensus seemed to be that I didn't know from good populist entertainment; that I expected everything to be brainy, couldn't appreciate a good action-packed mystery, and basically should just shut up. (My favorite was when people informed me that I was wrong because Dan Brown is richer than I am.)
I stand by what I said about Angels & Demons, but I should have mentioned a counterexample to Dan Brown: an author who writes simple, unabashedly goofy page-turners that sell like hotcakes but are actually readable, with characters who aren't obviously morons, sentences that don't make grown men cry, and messages that are coherent, if not nuanced. One such author is John Grisham, whose books are preachy, ludicrous, and simplistic – but also absorbing and breathlessly entertaining. You scoff, but all the while you're furiously flipping pages.
Grisham's newest, The Associate, has already been tapped for a feature-film adaptation, starring Shia LaBeouf as a Yale Law School grad bound for a low-paying but noble public interest law career but who is blackmailed into taking a prestigious, soul-sucking law firm job by nefarious types who want access to some ultra-secret documents for corporate espionage purposes. The novel covers some of the same ground as Grisham's classic The Firm, except this time grounded in what Grisham perceives as the reality of life for young, bright law school graduates seduced by the high-paying but miserable jobs as associates in corporate law firms. It's hugely silly and hugely entertaining in the best Grisham tradition; with the right director and screenwriter, it could take a place of honor in the less-than-illustrious history of Grisham film adaptations. As a young associate at a big corporate law firm – albeit not in New York City – I'm probably qualified to comment on The Associate's verisimilitude. Like a lot of good fiction writers, Grisham begins with a kernel of truth and exaggerates it, makes it larger than life. It's true that being an associate at a corporate law firm is a demanding, sometimes frustrating job, with an unpredictable schedule, the rare all-nighter, and pressure to bill hours. It is not true that the job leaves you with no time to do anything else (as evidenced by my writing this column), that law firms heedlessly gouge clients by billing them willy-nilly, that young associates do nothing but mindless drudgery, or that partners are all greedy, abusive jerks. But the latter scenario makes for a good story, and I wouldn't think to complain.
Grisham finds a good, uncomplicated protagonist in the smart, trapped, frustrated Kyle McAvoy, for whom Shia LaBeouf is a good choice – this might be the first time LaBeouf actually plays an adult. The villain, a fearsome, nearly omnipotent corporate spy with an ambiguous accent, alias Bennie Wright, is a role that seems tailor-made for Ben Kingsley. The key to the novel, and to the film, is the ridiculous, entertaining portrayal of McAvoy's law firm, "Scully & Pershing," where associates regularly spend the night in sleeping bags in the office, live in abject fear of partners, and occasionally faint from exhaustion.
The novel builds genuine suspense despite the silliness. Grisham's knack for vivid detail makes it possible to gloss right past the wildly implausible plot developments. The last hundred pages are tense almost to the point of being uncomfortable, though the way the story plays out is actually straightforward and refreshingly unpretentious. Grisham's view of what the practice of law should be -- a bustling small-town practice with no concern for big bucks or prestige and a tireless willingness to help poor clients in exchange for food and firewood -- is, as ever, incredibly naîve, and Grisham moralizes with a broad brush, but I've gotten used to that over the years. (See also: The Street Lawyer.)
This, friends, is how you write an "airport novel"; a populist, undemanding best-seller. I hope the movie can avoid the pomposity of the worst Grisham adaptations -- A Time to Kill, The Chamber -- and just tell a fast-paced, suspenseful story. As I've previously ranted, people like to defend crappy work on the ground that it's "just escapism" -- but there's a lot of art to writing and filming "escapism." This is a good example. Escapism is something John Grisham is good at it, and Dan Brown is not.