Upbeat Cynicism

what do you mean i lost my mind?

The Broker by John Grisham, 2005

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I have read only one Grisham book prior to this. I blasted through The Firm in two days in high school, not long after it first became a mega-hit. I did enjoy it while reading, but I wanted a shower afterward, partly because the plot and theme were so poorly integrated, and partly because the ending was so reprehensibly evasive. (I could not have expressed my dissatisfaction in these terms at that time, however.) Sydney Pollack’s film corrected both of those flaws marvelously, using only the materials Grisham provided, making it an instance of the movie being better than the book.

Another complaint I had was that the characters weren’t characters, merely props for the plot. Few (if any) of them had even a hint of a life, mental or physical, outside of the story. (Again, Pollack improved this.)

What I was impressed with, though, was the way Grisham seemed able to force me to keep reading, sleep and nourishment be damned!

So what of The Broker, written some 14 years on?

Well, Grisham’s plot construction and pacing are, if anything, improved. It’s simple, straightforward, and there is little in the way of extraneous incident. True, the book is over 460 pages and might have been kept under 300 with little sacrfice — except mood. There’s an extended lull-before-the-storm sequence that needs the room it has to be effective. And Grisham has, thankfully, made some attempts at creating characters who live beyond the plot mechanics.

Grisham set himself a difficult task, in fact. The plot is such that the man we meet is a personality in transition, one that has essentially been broken, and is trying to re-form. Everyone else in the story is highly concerned with who he used to be, but Grisham only gives us a few indirect glimpses of that person until the penultimate chapter. The rest of the time, that character must be implied even as his present self grows into a rather different man.

I won’t say that he manages it artfully or with grace, but he does manage it, and that’s more than the John Grisham who wrote The Firm was capable of doing.

The plot is fine thriller material. In the waning hours of a failed presidency, the almost–ex-president is convinced by the CIA to pardon Joel Backman.

Backman had once been a Washington power-broker (hence the title) but, after getting involved in a multinational intelligence fiasco (which he more or less caused, however wittingly), the government brought him up on bogus charges. After his associates disappeared or committed (involuntary) suicide, Backman copped a plea. He’s now six years into a fourteen year sentence.

The CIA, however, still doesn’t know which other nations were involved, or to what degree. So they get Backman pardoned, drop him in Italy under an assumed identity, and wait. When the time is right, Backman’s location and identity will be leaked. The CIA figures they can learn an awful lot just by seeing who kills him.

The integration of plot and theme are much better here than in The Firm, but still not always smooth. More than once Grisham falls back on narrating Backman’s thoughts and musings, because the action for the past X pages hasn’t really forced Backman to confront his old self. (The theme, in a word, is atonement.)

On a side note, I was surprised to learn something of Grisham’s politics here. He studiously avoids assigning any identifiable party affiliation to the outgoing or the incoming Presidents, and issues are not at the heart of this story. But to those conversant with the Clinton Administration Follies — the various deaths under mysterious, uninvestigated circumstances (Vince Foster being only one of several), the pardon scandal, and other incidents — certain details the narrative reveals make clear how little Grisham thinks of Willy-boy.

(To be fair, one could argue that references to the outgoing President’s lack of intelligence and inability to make a decision without a specific advisor are signs that Grisham doesn’t think much of George W. Bush or Karl Rove either, but the relationship might just as easily refer to Clinton and Dick Morris.)

PS — To whoever has the film rights: I’ve got some excellent ideas for doing a Firm on this, things that will make the movie stronger than the book. Contact me directly and let me pitch you on it! This thriller has the stuff to transcend its genre and become something much, much more if you take a few chances with it.

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Written by [IMH]

13 January 2006 at 8:08 am

Posted in Literature

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