Thursday, October 28, 2004

The last juror by John Grisham

What do I expect when the Grisham name appears on a novel? In two words: courtroom drama.
The jacket of the book, The last juror, reads as following.
'... The trial came to a startling and dramatic end when the defendant threatened revenge against the jurors if they convicted him. Nevertheless, they found him guilty, and he was sentenced to life in prison.
But in Mississippi in 1970, "life" didn't necessarily mean "life,"[Observe the misplaced comma coming inside the quotes! They can pay millions to the author, but reading the jacket text...] and nine years later Danny Padgitt managed to get himself paroled. He returned to Ford County, and retribution began.'
The two paragraphs appear together, giving the feel of a thrilling revenge plot. Not so!
As badly written as the book is, getting from the guilty sentence to the retribution, Grisham takes an amazing 15 chapters. Yes, for 15 chapters I read about how blacks were treated in Mississippi at that time, integration issues, the hospitality of the south, a character named Sam who escapes the draft by running to Canada, corn recipes, a growing publishing business, a drunk falling down a window, and other crap that had nothing to do with the story. Infact, all of it can be summed up in one line: During the next nine years, I mixed in with the locals, expanded the newspaper empire, bought the house I lived in, and worried about Danny Padgitt's release. That wasn't so hard, was it? So print that line out, and staple together chapters 23 through 36.
Infact, the novel would be a good example to use when teaching how not to write.
1. The biggest fault as I mentioned was the irrelevant details of the life of the protagonist that have no bearing on the court case, on the killings, on the lawyers. It reads like a rant of a Northern boy living in the South. I can live with a rant, but if that is what the book was about, why was it called 'The last juror', and why does the jacket cover fail to mention that the setting of the novel covers 15 chapters while the story covers the rest?
2. And who is the main character of the novel? The guy who is telling the story (the novel is written in first person) or the last juror? If its the protagonist why do we need to know about a plethora of characters and how they behave at town meetings and lunches, and whether they agree with the vietnam war or not? If its the juror, why do we need to know about the guy's publishing business, and what stories he prints?
3. The protagonist is a Northerner, who only cares about most of the issues (other than the trial) in only a passing way (i.e. wants to sell papers and these stories sell papers). If the protagonist doesnt care, why does the reader need to be reminded, event after event, that the protagonist didn't care about the meetings?
4. Specifics is good when they form a part of the plot, or are used as triggers. A good example is the opening of another Grisham book 'The summons'. Specifics are not good when they are irrelevant to the story. In four dreadful pages we read about the different kinds of churches in the south that the protagonist visits, and the atmosphere in them. And I thought it was about a murderer killing some jurors. Hmph!
Thanks to the Toronto Public Library, I didn't pay to learn these writing lessons. But the baffled look that I wore as I read the book in the coffee shop is enough retribution for this juror. No more Grisham from now on!