A few years back, Slim was about to board a plane when he realized that he had brought nothing to read on the flight. He rushed to the nearest airport shop where he was confronted with a row of paperbacks. Each paperback had the author’s name and the book title in embossed gold letters on the front cover; in each case, the author’s name was equal in size to the book’s title. He became fixated on the name, “Danielle Steel” – its one broad vowel, its five slender vowels, four of them “e’s”; and what about all those “l’s”! It was like a little poem in itself.
His flight was called for the last time, so Slim quickly grabbed “Sycamore Row” by John Grisham and boarded the flight.
This is a great book, not great as in “the Great American Novel” or “great literature” but great as in “Great Britain” or the “Great Divide”. In other words it’s big, about 1.75 inches thick. Slim found the first half inch to be tough going. It’s a simple enough story at first. A small town Mississippi businessman, Seth Hubbard, suffering from an incurable disease hangs himself. Shortly after, Jake Brigance, a local lawyer receives a handwritten will in which Seth leaves most of his considerable wealth to Lettie, his black housekeeper, contradicting a previous will in which everything was left to his children. Naturally, the children are not pleased and everyone starts to lawyer up.
This book is packed with the characters, some of whom could be called “stock” or perhaps, “restocked”. It’s as if Grisham went to Character Depot and picked up a bunch of characters that other novelists had returned. There is a crusty, cranky judge and a couple of cranky, crusty older lawyers with or recovering from a drink problem. There is a black lawyer with a whole pack of race cards in his back pocket. The main character, Jake, also a lawyer, has one major flaw and that is that he has no flaws. The housekeeper, Lettie, is saintly and beyond reproach. Seth’s children and their children are venal, money grabbing losers who had no time for Seth when he was alive. Jake’s wife is long suffering and uncomplaining and of course there is a cafe on the town square where blue collar workers, farmers and deputies gather for breakfast in the morning and there’s a waitress called Dell who trades insults with the customers and knows everyone’s business.
While reading about this café, called The Coffee Shop, Slim has a series of revelations. Dell is described as “a gum-smacking, sassy gal” who, while pouring Jake’s coffee, manages to “bump him with her ample ass – the same routine six mornings a week”. Slim realizes that Grisham has actually assigned a physical attribute to one of his characters. Dell’s ass is “ample”. He realizes then that he has no idea what the main character, Jake, looks like. Is he tall, short, fat, skinny? Does he have black, blond, brown, grey hair? Is he bald? What does Jakes’ wife Carla look like? So far she is nothing more than five letters on a page. He then realizes that the only reason he knows that Dell’s ass is ample is because Grisham needs that ass to perform an action and that action would not have the same effect if Dell’s ass wasn’t ample. He can’t risk not describing Dell’s ass.
By the way, who says “sassy gal” anymore? Elsewhere in the book, Grisham describes a prostitute in the bar which Simeon – Lettie’s no-good, drinking, gambling, philandering husband – hangs out, as “comely”; as in “as I walked out one morning, I met a comely maiden, on her way to the county fair”. It’s like he’s picking up his adjectives at a rural flea market.
Across the square from The Coffee Shop is the Tea Shoppe. This is where the white collar workers gather to discuss “interest rates and world politics” as opposed to “football, local politics and bass fishing”. What a neatly polarized world this is – black people, white people, blue collar, white collar. The poor white collar workers don’t get to discuss bass fishing and they have to meet in a café with an Olde Worlde name which further establishes them as effete and pretentious. Jake, on the other hand, though white collar, is accepted at the blue collar café, so right away we know he is authentic, he is to be trusted.
Chapter 17 takes place in the Tea Shoppe and here Grisham dispenses with names as well as adjectives. Nearly the whole chapter is taken up with a discussion between a lawyer, a banker, a merchant, an insurance agent and a realtor. These characters exist to provide background and update the reader on what is happening with the main characters. Lettie, for example, and her fast growing collection of family members have moved into a bigger house and there is a long discussion about how she can afford the rent. The merchant is there to ask the questions while the realtor, banker and lawyer are there to provide answers based on their respective professional expertise. The lawyer then takes center stage to answer questions on legal aspects of the case so that the reader is informed enough to understand what is going to happen in subsequent chapters. These characters then disappear.
This chapter gives perhaps the best insight into Grisham’s modus operandi. Every word he writes must serve or advance the plot, if it doesn’t, it is not required. After all, he has a town full of characters to keep moving and a story to tell and complex legal issues to convey in an understandable way and only 600 pages to do it in and Slim finds it irritating to be manipulated so obviously. At every turn, he can hear the whirring and clunking and banging and clanging of the mechanism driving this monster of a book but that’s not what really bothers him. What really bothers him is that he cannot put the book down. He really wants to know if Lettie gets her fortune and he is worried that her loser husband will gamble it all away and what about Jake? Will he make enough money from the case to buy that dream home for Carla? Will Jake, Carla and their daughter Hanna be safe because this guy who burned down Jake’s last house has just been released from prison and has a score to settle with Jake and Slim cares about them and he is nearly 300 pages away from finding out!