- - Thursday, November 9, 2017



By John Grisham

Doubleday, $28.95, 351 pages

Oh, what a tangled web John Grisham weaves, when first he practices to deceive.

At the end of the author’s note in this, his 39th novel, he tells readers that “The question all writers hate is: ‘Where do you get your ideas?’ But then he answers it — “I read an article in the September 2014 edition of the Atlantic titled ‘The Law School Scam.’ It’s a fine investigative piece by Paul Campos. By the end of it I was inspired and knew I had my next novel. Thank you, Mr. Campos.”

To be unaware that legal education has become a huge financial burden, and that most students finish with staggering and often crippling amounts of debt, you’d have to have been Rip Van Winkle’s bunkmate for the last several decades. But what you may not have known is what Paul Campos revealed and John Grisham brings so vividly to life, is that there are schools that recruit students knowing full well the students themselves aren’t good candidates and their chances of passing a bar examination are subpar.

But they promote them each year because their tuition is guaranteed by the federal government. The school gets the money each semester as long as the student is attending classes, and so the debt rises, as they say, hugely, semester by semester, year after year. The three friends featured in “The Rooster Bar, all in their final semester, owe a combined total of $652,000.00, which includes the fees added on by the banks that “serviced” them, and which collect, or try to collect, the loans after the students graduate — or drop out.

According to Mr. Campos, “This world [of for-profit law schools] is one in which schools accredited by the American Bar Association admit large numbers of severely underqualified students; these students in turn take out hundreds of millions of dollars in loans annually, much of which they will never be able to repay. Eventually, federal taxpayers will be stuck with the tab, even as the schools themselves continue to reap enormous profits.”

Mr. Grisham’s three exemplars are Foggy Bottom third-year students Mark Frazier, Zola Maal from Senegal, and Todd Lucerno, none of whose undergraduate resumes and LSAT scores would have qualified them for admission into any reputable nonprofit law school. But Foggy Bottom welcomed them, as Mr. Grisham writes “with open arms.”

By this point in their so-called legal educations, they have begun to suspect their futures are definitely not bright: Todd is tending bar at a joint on Florida and U Streets, NW, called The Rooster Bar, Mark has a nothingburger job with a law firm that promised him a salary if and when he graduates and passes the bar, and Zola works part time for an accounting firm, a nice ironic touch given that an accounting of their situation would easily reveal the futility of what they are about. If that isn’t enough trouble for one young life, Mark, Todd, and Zola each have major problems in his or her immediate family.

And then Gordon Tanner, their mutual third-year classmate, good friend, (and Zola’s lover) stops coming to class and won’t return their calls. So they go to his apartment and find him drunk, disheveled, and almost disorderly. Gordy’s life is also a mess (for one thing, he’s engaged to be married to his hometown sweetheart who is planning an elaborate wedding immediately following his law school graduation. Color her clueless.)

But on one wall of Gordy’s apartment he has created a decoupage of details that exposes the evil genius behind the for-profit law school scam, one Hinds Rackley, a businessman who owns seven of them around the country, an ownership he chooses to hide even though such schools are not against the law. But in his manic zeal to bring down Rackley’s empire, Gordy has reached the end of both his rope and his control; he drives his car off Memorial Bridge, whereupon his three best friends take up his mission.

As all of this happens in the book’s first 62 pages, it would be a spoiler to reveal more plot details, so suffice it to say that John Grisham takes it from there, moving the plot along at a sometimes bewildering pace yet all the while increasing the plausibility of his story (at least up to a point) — as well as the reader’s affection for his main characters.

I for one was surprised by his ending, not to mention its possibility in real life, and found this Grisham tale more interesting than thrilling. However, I am duty-bound to report that others who’ve read “the latest Grisham” were not similarly bothered.

As we all know by now, or should, there is only one John Grisham.

• John Greenya is a Washington-area writer.

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