John Grisham kick-starts his latest morality fable just as he has kick-started so many others: by introducing the warring forces of good and evil. On the side of the angels: Kyle McAvoy, idealistic editor in chief of The Yale Law Journal. As “The Associate” begins, Kyle is coaching a basketball team for underprivileged kids in New Haven as he waits to graduate and pursue his career of choice. He has accepted a $32,000-a-year legal aid job so he can help migrant workers in Virginia.
But there is a sinister stranger with a “slick head” and “calm hairy hands” in Kyle’s future. He shows up to broach a different career plan. This vaguely foreign-sounding man, calling himself Bennie Wright and aided by a team of fake F.B.I. agents, announces that he would like Kyle to become a $200,000-a-year associate for a high-powered New York law firm. Translated from the Grisham-ese, what that means is that Bennie — acting on the same kinds of murky but all-powerful motives that used to fuel Hitchcock plots as he sets up a corporate espionage scheme with Kyle as its patsy — would like Kyle to sell his soul to the devil.
Kyle is a brash, attractive good guy. (Think back to “The Firm.” Mr. Grisham has.) Why would he agree to an about-face like that? Because he has to. Quicker than you can say, “Duke lacrosse team,” Bennie brings up an ugly college episode that involved Kyle, his Duquesne University fraternity brothers and a woman named Elaine who now claims to have been raped by four of them at a party. Bennie has a cell-phone video record of the incident that is remarkably clear, even though all participants were too drunk to remember whether the sex was consensual.
Thus propelled, Kyle goes off to a place where he will suffer mightily so that Mr. Grisham can have a field day. Kyle enters the greedy, brutalizing world of Scully & Pershing, said to be the world’s largest law firm. This place chews up and spits out smart young rookies from America’s top law schools, and Mr. Grisham gives himself yet another chance to deplore that process.
With the help of a well-used cookie cutter he delivers one more hard-charging book about the hellish demands of corporate law. “I want to be a partner so I can sleep until 5:00 A.M. every day until I die at 50,” Kyle says bitterly, once he sizes up his new Scully & Pershing career.
Must a lawyer’s life be this way? Do you even have to ask? Kyle’s father has a small-town practice in Pennsylvania. “He worked very hard and treated everyone fairly,” the book says of him. “Clients were free to call him at home, and he would meet them on Sunday afternoons if necessary.” As for income, “fees were sometimes delivered in the form of firewood, eggs and poultry, steaks and free labor around the house.”
Soapbox fiction can be stupefying. But Mr. Grisham owes a very long winning streak to his stealth gift for making preachiness thrilling. Most recently, in “The Appeal,” he examined the corrupt process of rigging an election and concocted one of his best stories in recent memory. This time, returning to safer and more familiar territory, he dissects an amoral corporate culture, decries blind ambition and manages to use alcoholism, often the laziest aspect of crime stories, as an element of dramatic suspense. Though Kyle has been sober since college, he now finds himself stuck in an expense-account world where the second bottle of wine at a two-person lunch is supposed to be a perk, not a problem.
Mr. Grisham so often writes similar books that the same things must be said of them. “The Associate” is true to form: it grabs the reader quickly, becomes impossible to put down, stays that way through most of its story, and then escalates into plotting so crazily far-fetched that it defies resolution. Kyle McAvoy is another of the two-dimensional yet terrifically likeable heroes who come to life on Mr. Grisham’s pages only to evaporate later.
It’s easy to predict what choice Kyle will make at the end of the novel. It’s impossible to imagine, let alone care, what his life will be like once the improbably wild furor surrounding this one lone law-firm recruit is over.
Every now and then Mr. Grisham comes up with a lemon. “The Broker,” the touristy international thriller that existed primarily an excuse for its author to research the picturesque cafes of Italy, was one of those. “The Associate” is much better, even if it’s something of a retread.
Filled with individual episodes that are more memorable than its overall plot, it describes astonishing wastes of Kyle’s $400-an-hour time, for example when he bills $800 for driving a law partner’s car (actually his wife’s car) around blocks in Lower Manhattan because he can’t find a parking space near the Federal Courthouse. It also powerfully captures the cynicism with which Scully & Pershing’s new associates are whipsawed into utter servility while being persuaded that they are poised to become part of New York’s power elite.
Mr. Grisham fuses Kyle’s college and job experiences with something more skillful than simple cross-cutting. He brings back the old buddies who were part of an embarrassing past and allows them to nerve-rackingly jeopardize Kyle’s future. And although Mr. Grisham surrounds good-guy Kyle with spies, thugs and other calm hairy-handed menaces, “The Associate” never forgets who is this new lawyer’s worst enemy. It’s his old self.