Sunday, January 18, 2015

Gray Mountain - Grisham misses the mark

book review

Book: Gray Mountain
Author: John Grisham

Donovan Gray is on a mission: fighting a one-man battle against Big Coal, and nothing neither the inherent dangers of the undertaking, nor the strain it has had on his now-failing marriage is going to force him to back off. A 30-something lawyer pursuing big cases in the small town of Brady, Virginia, he bends rules, dodges threats, carries a gun, and flies his own plane, all while crusading against the nasty Appalachian coal companies, one of which destroyed his family when he was a child. He is fearless, almost reckless, and is probably the most interesting character in John Grisham's new novel, Gray Mountain. He, however, is not the book's protagonist.

Jeff Gray is Donovan's younger brother. He shares his sibling's tragic history and passion (as well as his good looks), and even though he isn't a lawyer, he is still determined to help Donovan bring down the bad guys. He, too, is not the story's lead character.

Mattie Wyatt is Donovan and Jeff's aunt, and helped raise the former after their mother's death. Her family was also a victim of the mining companies' pursuit of profit at the expense of human lives, and she now heads Brady's Mountain Legal Aid Clinic, providing free legal help to the downtrodden who come to her with their heartbreaking problems. No, she isn't the novel's central character either.

Marshall Kofer is a former lawyer, disbarred and disgraced for a 'rather clumsy attempt at corruption'. After being convicted and sent to prison for three years, he has reimagined himself as a consultant in Alexandria, advising other plaintif fs'lawyers on mass tort cases. But he is always vague with the details and leaves you with the impression that something shady might be going on behind the scenes. And no, this book isn't about him.

Can you imagine how exciting and / or involving the story would be if Donovan, Jeff, Mattie, or Marshall were in charge of the narrative? Because John Grisham sure can't.

Instead, he builds the story around a character so bland that even vanilla is too strong a flavour to describe her.

Our protagonist is Samantha, a privileged New Yorker who, until recently (before the re cession hit and made her redundant) worked in commercial real estate at the world's biggest law firm as a paper pusher. She is Marshall Kofer's daughter, and Mattie Wyatt's reluctant new intern, volunteering at the Clinic as part of a furlough deal wherein she has to work without pay at a non-profit for one year, after which she might get her old job back.

Out of place and out of her depth, at the Clinic Samantha is confronted with real people who have real problems. She gets to know Donovan and then Jeff, and learns about the havoc that surface mining is wrecking across the region, how the land and its people are suffering because of it, and how coal companies are profiteering while dodging their responsibilities.

In the middle of a potentially interesting premise, Samantha, a detached observer, goes around with her thoughts firmly concerned with her own benefit (and shows no signs of being competent or even vaguely intelligent, even though the book repeatedly tells us otherwise). Her concerns are primarily self-centred, and her preoccupation with her own situation makes her anything but a sympathetic character. Shallow and insipid, she has little substance and adds little to the proceedings. Take her out of the narrative, and we wouldn't lose anything; instead, the story would just pick up pace. Shift the focus to Donovan, Jeff, or Mattie, and you would get a far more compelling book while highlighting the same issues.

Gray Mountain's stance as an 'issue novel' would have been more powerful with someone more involved in the concerns guiding us through the tale. As it stands, the book (very strongly, and without even a hint of subtlety) manages to convey the desolation strip mining leaves in its wake, but that does not make up for the fact that it is a very dull read.

There isn't a solid plot in the middle of the various proceedings (and things get even worse after a sudden, ill-conceived development a little over halfway through the novel that is meant to shock but instead just drains the story of all its energy). We see a number of cases, but don't have a central element or lawsuit that gets explored in detail. And then, after we read the last sentence, we are left with a big mystery: where is the ending? The book just sort of fizzles out, calling it quits without giving a proper resolution to most of its arcs.

In the nearly 25 years that he has been active as a novelist, Grisham has the whole 'underdog battles big, evil corporation' formula down pat, and even though he hasn't been coming up with masterpieces of late, he usually succeeds in delivering at least an entertaining story. Sadly, nothing about Gray Mountain suggests that it was written by one of the most popular and successful authors in the world; instead, it makes you wonder whether this manuscript would have gone to print if it had been submitted by an unknown writer.

Gray Mountain doesn't read so much like a thriller as a scant docu-drama focused on a clueless, entitled protagonist who is surrounded by characters far more exciting than her, and far more worthy of having their stories told; you wait for her character to develop and her strength to show, but that never really happens, and in the end the novel just leaves you wondering how its many threads will ultimately resolve. The tome puts its issues centre stage and then belabours them for most of the text, and in doing so, it loses its creativity and spark. Its prose and style are mostly affable, but the plot falls flat. Gray Mountain will school you on the dangers of surface mining, but if you want a powerful legal 'thriller' (or even a mildly entertaining story), then you'd be wise to look elsewhere.

- By Sameen Amer

Books & Authors, Dawn - 18th January, 2015 *

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