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'The Street Lawyer' by John Grisham

A Different Direction

Saturday, February 15, 1997

By Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writer


The Street Lawyer

By John Grisham



You have to give John Grisham credit. He uses his ninth novel to give America a strong shake of the shoulders over the issue of homelessness. If you didn't think we deserved one before, you'll think we deserve one after reading "The Street Lawyer."

Selling millions of books and pricking the collective conscience of readers are not mutually exclusive; Grisham proves you can do both.

When I heard there was a new Grisham, I made a wisecrack about which of the Caribbean islands or points unknown the hero would escape to. Fleeing to some sunny retreat and wiring small fortunes into secret accounts have been favorite fallbacks. Not this time, although money, reputations and lives are at stake.

"The Street Lawyer" opens with a dramatic jolt. A homeless man wanders into a pricey Washington, D.C., law firm and takes nine of its 400 attorneys hostage. He not only has a gun, but a bundle of what looks like dynamite taped to his unwashed body.

"You walk right by me as I sit and beg. You spend more on fancy coffee than I do on meals. Why can't you help the poor, the sick, the homeless? You have so much," the man who demands to be called simply "Mister" challenges.

Then he does something sure to strike terror into the shrunken hearts of misers everywhere: He demands their tax records. He wants to check their charitable contributions.

"Don't put me and my people in the same class with the symphony and the synagogue and all your pretty white folks clubs where you auction wine and autographs and give a few bucks to the Boy Scouts. I'm talking about food. Food for hungry people who live here in the same city you live in. . . . "


Among the hostages is our protagonist, a 32-year-old antitrust attorney named Michael Brock who hails from Memphis, graduated from Yale University and is married to a driven but distant surgical resident. He bills clients at the rate of $300 an hour, 50 hours a week, 50 weeks a year.

Mister meets a violent end, but the experience transforms Michael. The lawyer is literally and figuratively covered in Mister's blood and his attempts to find out what motivated the man leads him to a world of soup kitchens and squatters and homeless shelters and a legal clinic where law is practiced but there are no marble foyers or million-dollar salaries.

His guide to this previously invisible universe is Mordecai Green, a firebrand in his early 50s who represents the poorest of the poor. He educates Michael and the reader about the elimination of low-cost housing and the trend in America to criminalize homelessness.

"The big cities have passed all sorts of laws designed to persecute those who live on the streets. Can't beg, can't sleep on a bench, can't camp under a bridge, can't store personal items in a public park, can't sit on a sidewalk, can't eat in public," Mordecai says, before moving on to "sweeps" such as the one that removed homeless people from Atlanta's streets before the Summer Games.

"The Street Lawyer" is not just a primer on the poor. It's a legal thriller about Drake & Sweeney's connection to the hostage-taker - it wouldn't be a Grisham book without a corporate conspiracy or cover-up - and how Michael puts his very livelihood on the line.

As usual, the characters in "The Street Lawyer" are sketched in the broadest of strokes. Grisham wades into the surf, gets his feet wet and then he's off and writing. Other authors plunge into the deep end, immersing us in enough inward and outward detail so that we could draw the character and provide a personality profile worthy of the FBI's Behavioral Science Unit.

In the Feb. 9 issue of Newsweek, Grisham describes how he thought about writing a novel about a lawyer who has a violent encounter with a street person and then becomes a public-interest advocate for the poor. He did research in D.C., where he met lawyers and poor people and - hauntingly - a mother with three young children who provided the inspiration for a fragile family in the book.

Grisham writes like a man who's found religion and that lends a strong point of view to the novel, but also a naivete and sometimes a simplicity. For instance, a homeless woman trying to kick a crack habit is still fighting for the teen-age son she left in the care of nurturing empty-nesters. See, she does have a good heart.

And even if Michael lives in the comfortable bubble on the fast track to partnership, you'd think he wouldn't be such an innocent when it comes to homelessness. With television stations doing stories every winter when the shelters fill up or every summer when the sidewalk sizzles, street people are hard to miss. And let's not forget the feel-good Christmas dinner at the mission pieces.

I'm happy, though, that Grisham has used his reach to tackle something important this time, something beyond the noble young lawyer against his money-grubbing elders. This time, in a way, it's Comfortable America, where people can pay $27.95 or $20 (where discounted) for a hard-cover book, vs. The Needy.

Grisham can afford to take a very slight risk in choosing his subject matter. Heck, he could go out on a limb and saw the darn thing off. Since publication of "The Firm" in 1991, he's never stumbled.

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