Review: John Grisham, The Testament

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Years ago, I tried my hand at a few book reviews. Here is one of them, because I think it still has merit, and because I need some content to test the function of this web site Iā€™m building. This was previously published at an old site of mine, BookishThoughts.com.

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Mass Market Paperback: 544 pages. Dell, 1999. ISBN: 0440234743.

A personal confession: I have a graduate degree in literature from an Ivy League school. My favorite legal thriller is Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, which I prefer to read in the original Russian. Yet I have also read, quite shamelessly, all nine of John Grisham’s novels, including The Testament, and I have enjoyed each of them enough to read the next one. I can admit this because my mentor at Cornell, a leading literary scholar, convinced me that his taste for cheap detective novels was not a vice or a betrayal of higher art.

For me a Grisham novel is an escape. I expect it to be competently written, but not psychologically or philosophically profound. I expect entertainment that doesn’t insult my intelligence or stretch the limits of believability too far. (Alas, The Runaway Jury did the latter, but I was fresh from a month of jury duty when I read it.) Grisham fills this bill quite nicely. He is an order of magnitude shallower than Scott Turow, whom I also enjoy, but he is also much easier to read. Some of you will also care, as I do, that Grisham is generally free of sexually explicit content, unlike Turow.

In Grisham’s novels someone (besides me) is always escaping from something. More often than not, our hero or heroine is fleeing that favorite Grisham villain, the large law firm, with its vicious power struggles and well-paid servitude. If the firm is not actually trying to visit a violent death upon our hero, as in The Firm, it is battering his psyche, tearing apart his family, ruining his health, threatening professional or financial ruin, or ruthlessly hardening him to the plight of the poor, the homeless, and everyone else who doesn’t drive a late model BMW or better.

In this case, as The Testament begins, most of the damage is already done. Middle-aged attorney Nate O’Riley’s family is already shattered twice over. His financial ruin is an accomplished fact. He is emerging from drug rehabilitation for the fourth time in ten years, and he’s about to be disbarred over some improprieties involving the IRS. For all that, Nate is a brilliant litigator, when sober.

No sooner had I met Nate than I concluded that, in the end, he probably would escape most of his troubles, come to grips with the rest, and somehow start a new life, away from the litigation that drove him repeatedly to alcohol and harder drugs. Even with these general expectations established from the beginning, however, I found ample suspense. Better still, it wasn’t difficult to care about two or three of the characters. The rest are another matter entirely.

The Testament is written mostly from a comfortable, anonymous third-person viewpoint, but the first two chapters are narrated by one Troy Phelan. This cranky, elderly, eccentric multi-billionaire cannot continue to narrate for the simple reason that he pitches himself over a railing and falls several stories to his death at the end of Chapter Two. This is just after he has signed a new will in a dramatic meeting with three ex-wives’ worth of his children, where three distinguished psychiatrists have certified him mentally capable. The children believe he is leaving them at least half a billion apiece, but his real goal is to leave his good-for-nothing offspring very little, and to make his last testament (which gives the novel its title) virtually incontestable.

The rest of the novel confirms what we have already seen through Phelan’s eyes: His children are base creatures, and they deserve his hatred. Their lawyers are more intelligent, but otherwise no better than their clients. Grisham is good enough at what he does that, unless you’re kinder than I am, you’ll despise them all too. You won’t want this spoiled riffraff to get the money any more than you wanted the insurance company to win in The Rainmaker. Perhaps you’ll be objective enough to feel this way because of the damage they could do with all that money, but for me it was more personal. I just didn’t like them.

In the new will Phelan leaves nearly everything to an estranged, illegitimate daughter, Rachel, whom no one knew he had. She has disappeared into the jungles of Brazil, where she lives a simple Christian life as a missionary among isolated tribes who know nothing of the modern world. Predictably, Nate is dispatched to find her; it’s a good time for him to be out of the country. With considerable difficulty, and then almost by accident, he locates her. Also predictably, she initially displays no interest in her father’s massive financial legacy. Meanwhile, back in the Northern Hemisphere, Phelan’s other children are increasingly obsessed by the money they have, the money they owe, and the money they think they can get.

Three questions kept me turning pages. First, Rachel has escaped modern civilization to a simple life of selfless goodness. She is happy and content. Will she return to the modern world to claim her fortune, or not? If so, what will become of her? Second, what will happen to Nate? Will he survive his jungle adventures? Will he become a missionary there? If he remains in society, will he stay clean and dry? Will he slide back into the gutter, perhaps never to return? (Given Grisham’s penchant for happy endings ā€“ that is, for successful escapes ā€“ I didn’t really believe he would leave Nate in the gutter.) Above all, there is the matter of the money. Will Phelan succeed, posthumously, in the worthy cause of keeping his legitimate children’s grimy hands off his fortune?

For me there was suspense on a different level, as well. Given the prominence of the Brazilian rain forest in the novel, and the ongoing tension between the simple, primitive life there and Nate’s intense, destructive lifestyle in the modern world, I was afraid Grisham might end up preaching some politically correct sermons before he was finished. Happily, he does not. He lets one character refer briefly to the rate at which farmers are encroaching on the rain forest, but there is no heavy-handed political arm-twisting. Nor is The Testament a tirade against the wealthy. However despicable Phelan’s offspring may be, there are others in the novel who wear the trappings of wealth with some dignity and generosity.

I am told that in good fiction at least one character evolves ā€” grows, learns, degenerates, something. Here one of them does; it would give too much away to say which one. I am also told that in works of serious literature, the reader evolves. There is little danger of that here. I don’t think The Testament changed me at all. I didn’t expect it to. I read Grisham solely for entertainment, and he’s plenty good at that.

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