Sunday, June 26, 2016

Modern Muckraking

“Gray Mountain,” by John Grisham, 2015

Grisham is the writer of progressive lawyers.  His heroes are usually low-end attorneys who take on the good fight.  They battle corporations, the bureaucratic government, crooked lawyers and ‘experts,’ cops and racists.  His books consistently rank in the best seller lists because they are page-turners, skillfully plotted numbers that put you on the side of ‘right.’  In this case, it is the war against the wealthy coal companies in Virginia, West Virginia and eastern Tennessee who practice mountain-top removal, ignore black-lung disease and have millions of dollars to fight lawsuits against environmental degradation and the destruction of worker health.

Mountain Top Removal in the Appalachian Mountains
The biggest question is, of course, do these class actions and ‘good’ fights ultimately change who controls the U.S.?  It has certainly been proven, as was shown in the book ‘Class Action,” (reviewed below) that these legal decisions can have long-term progressive consequences for women, working class people, ethnic minorities, etc.  “Brown v Board of Education,” “Roe v Wade,” and others have been imprinted into U.S. culture.  Yet both these decisions reflect larger movements within society that impacted the legal system.  In that sense, lawyers come second to the movements.  Grisham does not show this, but instead focuses on the heroic lawyer.  Yet law is politics by other means and is directly connected to the class struggle.  In a society where private property is a legal right across the board, ultimately all of these defensive fights are waged against the prevailing legal structure.  Many times that capitalist legal structure is the problem itself, and not something that can be defeated in a court of law.

Grisham here starts with a familiar theme – the upper-middle class person thrown into poverty or unemployment due to social factors.  In this case it is the economic collapse of 2008 when a female real-estate contract attorney – Samantha Kofer – is laid-off from her job in a lucrative coporate law firm in Manhattan along with hundreds of others.  Upper middle-class people are not supposed to be laid off or fired or lose their loft, cappuccinos and martinis.  Samantha is oddly forced to seek ‘intern’ work in the Mountain Legal Aid Clinic in remote Brady, Virginia in order to preserve her right to be recalled back to work.  So she ends up going to Appalachia to practice the kinds of law she has no experience of, or doesn’t like – wills, litigation, divorce, battery, TROs, black lung compensation – anything a small town lawyer might do in such a conflicted location.  Drugs, poverty and unemployment dominate the mountain towns.  Being a corporate real-estate contract attorney is probably the dullest job in law, and even Samantha is sick of it, but this at first is beyond her ken.

The predictable romance and ‘adventure’ follows while she is thrown into battles against greedy relatives who want to sell their land to coal companies; violent meth-heads who beat their wives; rich coal companies who attempt to intimidate her with goons and the FBI; a dying coal-miner who is denied black-lung benefits, which is a standard practice by the coal companies.  The unions have been destroyed in many of these coal fields.  Mountain top removal is the cheaper way to mine coal over the deep ‘vein’ underground mining that existed when unions were prevalent.  Grisham shows the environmental devastation of mountain top removal - streams and rivers polluted and destroyed, timber bulldozed, people killed by careening trucks and boulders, homes leveled. It is clear here that the destruction of unions and people also leads to the decimation of the land.

Samantha works with the Brady female legal-aid lawyers who are tough and stand up to the intimidation on a daily basis, and begins to enjoy the human companionship, shorter hours, nature and meaning of her new job.  Yet she still dreams of Manhattan, and considers her stay to be very temporary.  Like most upper-middle class people, she has family reserves.  Both her parents are high-level attorneys – her mother in the Justice Department, her father a former class action attorney, now funding class actions.  Both of these contacts come in handy in the fight against the coal companies.

Ultimately some stolen documents play a role in the litigation against the coal companies.  The edge between ‘legal’ and illegal is here walked through the book, with Samantha trying to avoid the marginal tactics that the opponents of the coal companies use in order to hold their own.  Grisham hints that always playing by the book is a losing strategy against such opponents. Shots ring out against enormous truck tires.  An odd sentiment for a lawyer, who is supposed to 'believe in the law.'

I’ll leave you with a quote from a coal miner in the book applying for black lung benefits, and his dealinsg with the well-paid corporate attorneys:
“I remember those guys in court, in front of the administrative law judge.  Three or four of them, all in dark suits and shiny black shoes, all strutting around so important.  They would look over at us like we was white trash, you know, just an ignorant coal miner with his ignorant wife, just another deadbeat trying to game the system for a monthly check.  I can see them right now, arrogant little shits, so smart and smug and cocky because they knew how to win and we didn’t.  I know it’s not very Christian-like to hate, but I really, really despised those guys.” 
He goes on:
            “They got the money, the power, the doctors, and I guess the judges.  Some system.”

Other books by Grisham reviewed below:  "A Time to Kill" and "Sycamore Row.

Red Frog
June 26, 2016

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