Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Genre Fiction / Familiar Facts

"A Time to Kill,” by John Grisham, 1989

This was Grisham’s first book, which he couldn’t sell until someone grabbed his second – the “Pelican Brief” – and made it into a movie.  This book didn’t change, but the possibility of profits did.  Grisham lives in Oxford, Mississippi, the center of Faulkner’s fabled Yoknapatawpha County, and location of Faulkner’s later home, Rowan Oak.  Grisham is no Faulkner, but he does have a series of stories ‘round Oxford called, oddly enough, “Ford County Stories,” so he’s plumbing the gravity of place for all its worth -  similar to his inspiration.  This book also carries on bravely in a town named “Clanton” located somewhere northwest of Oxford.  With a judge named “Noose.”  Yes, a hanging judge.  The Klan makes an appearance or three in this book, which might hint at the inspiration for the town’s moniker. 

Grisham is not a stranger to humor – nor is he a stranger to making fun of lawyers, judges, the courts and all the rest, being a former lawyer himself.  He is the doyen of the ‘lawyer fiction’ genre, mostly because he’s not some ideologue for the nobility of the profession like many of the painfully dull, straight-arrows who practice it.  This book also cherishes ‘Southernness.' Which comes off as painfully stupid when it stands up for the death penalty or being a chauvinist or a bigot.  Grisham originally wrote this book in 1989 before the ‘Innocence Project’ had taken off.  Yet it didn’t take much to recognize even then that many men, especially black ones, were being killed by the State while innocent.  The cuteness of old boy bastards leering at young women wears thin.  As does everyone’s use of the word ‘nigger’ – this is not set in the ‘60s, mind you.  It is supposedly taken for granted in ‘80s Mississippi that the courtrooms are segregated by habit, that all voting is ethnic and that the Klan still has a base in northern Mississippi. And this is just good ‘ol boy normality - nothing to get your ‘panties’ in a twist about. Grisham portrays some close relationships between the black and white residents of Clanton – including the black sheriff, the disbarred white drunken lawyer Lucien, and his hero, the working attorney Jake Brigance. (ne brigand?) 

Jake is a young, brash, tough, small-town lawyer that fends off a crooked Memphis criminal attorney and a smug white NAACP attorney to handle his client’s case.  Black factory worker Carl Lee Hailey has killed two white bigots with an M-16 after they tied up, raped and beat his 10-year-old daughter.   Carl Lee is a Vietnam vet and, as the defense will show, ‘snapped,’ went temporarily insane, and shot the Confederate flag-waving killers at close range on some interior Courthouse steps.  Many blacks and whites around Clanton sympathize with Carl Lee, but technically he did the deed.  Jake’s strategy is to give the jury a ‘legal’ reason to acquit or fail to find a verdict, and channel their sympathy.  Not legal – but human.  Jurors have been bought in other trials - and lying testimony sought and rendered.  Racism has been fundamental all the time.  Jake will make them see it Carl Lee’s way instead. 

Jake, on Lucien’s bad advice, hires the drunkenest psychiatrist in Mississippi to testify on Carl Lee’s behalf because they have no money for a real psychiatrist.  Jake, partial teetotaler, is driven to drink during this trial.  And so do his beautiful hired female paralegal Ellen, his old patron Lucien and his divorce attorney buddy Rex.  Lots of drinkin’ is done, and I guess that is part of the picturesque south.  The more they yell about morality, the more they drink, have illegitimate children and hurt each other evidently. 

Now the Klan arrives to take up the cause of the two dead bigots, Billy Ray and Willard.  Believe it or not, the Klan gets away with almost dynamiting Jake’s house, killing his secretary’s elderly husband, killing an informer, brutalizing Ellen, terrorizing 20 members of the jury pool and eventually burning Jake’s classic old house and car to the ground.  This is the 1980s now.  No FBI around.  No effective police work by the black sheriff.  No publicity. The Klan have the run of the land, it seems.  Jake keeps the Klan efforts hushed up, instead of using them to get sympathy. 

That is until the black folks show up.  The Klan appear in the center of Clanton (which strongly resembles Oxford, with the southern-facing courthouse in the middle of the town square) surrounded by hundreds of angry black people who chase them out of the square.  Later a mass march by 20,000 black people from various black churches in Mississippi intimidates the Klan into permanent hiding.  No white radicals ever appear in “Clanton” to confront the Klan, even though every appearance by the Klan during the 80s was an occasion for integrated radical groups like the John Brown Anti-Klan Committee and various communist organizations to confront them too.  Which is one of the reasons why you don’t see the Klan in public anymore.  

You know when the Klan or the Nazis show up in a book or movie that the ‘bad guy’ quota has been met. This is a tired liberal tactic, as no further in-depth work has to be done to find or create who the actual ‘bad guys’ really are.  Who benefits from the Klan? Duh.

Grisham makes fun of the leading black reverend who keeps the donations for Carl Lee instead of giving it to the family.  The preacher is forced to hand the money over to Carl Lee’s family, who have lost his factory wage and have no food.  

Judge Noose is corrupt, as he needs to be re-elected and is told if he moves the case to another county his campaign funders will cut him off.  So he stays the course and holds the trial in Clanton in the midst of an armed circus, as the National Guard has come to town.  Prosecutor Buckley wants to be governor, so he preens for the cameras, as does Jake.  The prosecutor asks for the gas chamber, so the stakes are high.  Jake’s buddies Lucien and Rex all think men will vote to acquit, but Ellen, Jake’s aide, thinks women will.  The eventual jury is all white and mostly female.  Almost everything in the trial goes against Carl Lee.  There are no blacks on the jury.  Every juror has to claim he believes in the death penalty.  The drunk psychiatrist is unmasked as someone accused of statutory rape for having sex with a 17 year old as a youth.  Carl Lee comes off apologetic on the stand.  Jake gets drunk before his closing argument.  Except for the police officer Carl Lee accidentally shot who stands up for him, the odds are stacked against him. 

However there is a massive march outside the courthouse while the jury deliberates.  This pressure helps.  And the jurors vote to acquit…led by a woman who told them to imagine if the girl raped had been white and their little daughter.  They do a blind vote on whether they would kill the guys who did it – and 12 hands go up.  And so Carl Lee is free.

This is a fast, funny, entertaining read.  The Klan comes off as unreal.  The twists and turns against Jake seem a bit contrived.  The politics are pabulum.  The South is pictured as a somewhat of a cliché.  The law becomes more exciting than it really is.  But this is genre’ fiction and he’s the master. Grisham’s sole non-fiction book, ‘An Innocent Man’ is one of his most gripping because it is more real - about a working class guy unjustly accused of murder.  He’s got plenty of others, so take your pick.

Red Frog
April Fool’s Day, 2014

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