"The Racketeer" by John Grisham (Doubleday, $27.95)
John Grisham is one of the most popular authors in the world. Each year his book sales top 250 million copies. He is one of three authors who've sold more than 2 million copies on a first printing (the other two are Tom Clancy and J.K. Rowling). Nine of his novels have been adapted for films. He is a fellow Mississippian who has been very supportive of my brother's bronze monument projects. Our family was even inspired to plan a Christmas around one of his books, "Skipping Christmas" He has certainly come a long way since the days of receiving 28 rejection notices when he wrote "A Time to Kill" and finally settled for Wynwood Press, an unknown publisher. However, in the five years we've been reviewing books for Solares Hill, we have never reviewed one of his books.
We are glad to finally correct this oversight.
We can sum up our opinion of "The Racketeer" with one sentence. Not only was the book fun to read, it was also well written with lots of thrills and excitement. The plot is unusual as the story flows from page to page. In "The Racketeer," Grisham is not trying to be socially relevant; he is simply writing a good story. With this book he is not grandstanding on a soapbox, not out to teach lessons about justice. The plot is more complicated than that.
Malcolm (Mal) Bannister, a black former marine, has been disbarred and sent to an all-white minimum security prison for being a minor and, he claims, accidental player in a RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act) offense: money laundering. The event has cost him his family and friends in addition to his law practice. A federal judge is then murdered and the FBI has no lead to find the killer. Malcolm has the information they need and uses it to trade for his freedom. A story ensues with multiple twists and turns as Bannister works various angles to regain his freedom.
Grisham explores several themes in "The Racketeer." First, it is a "heist" or "sting" type story reminiscent of "Ocean's Eleven" or "The Sting." It is also a tale about David (Bannister) who takes on Goliath (the U.S. government) and puts up one hell of a fight. Finally, it is a story about a good guy who fights the systems and avenges his mistreatment, along with a theme of revenge.
Midway through "The Racketeer," Grisham's plot takes a tangential swerve into another storyline that might make some readers feel they're reading another book altogether. Then as the novel progresses from there, the level of danger to Malcolm seems to disappear and he appears to control his own destiny with little or no threat of consequence.
Grisham comments on criminal statutes as he discusses RICO. He states, "The Constitution names only three federal offenses: treason, piracy and counterfeiting. Today there are over 4,500 crimes and the number continues to grow as Congress gets tougher on crime and federal prosecutors become more creative in finding ways to apply all their new laws."
The main negative for "The Racketeer" is that Malcolm is not always a very likable protagonist. He's the character the reader is supposed to be cheering for but one's support is tempered by Malcolm's pompous, cocky and cavalier attitude. We probably never truly felt sorry for him to the extent we were intended to. We found ourselves wondering more than once if he was getting what he deserved. To make matters worse, we found ourselves almost feeling sorry for the bad guy and wondering if it was Malcolm's place to mete out judgment. We also kept waiting for Malcolm to truly become the good guy who was fighting the system to make things better for future underdogs and wronged people. Well, it never happened. Malcolm remained a self-righteous and somewhat preachy hooligan who's main goal was to rob other hooligans while making still other hooligans wealthy.
We admire Grisham for his wide variety of books. Time after time he seems to create unique story lines and characters. He has succeeded in this regard once again with "The Racketeer" It reminds us of the passion infused in a book written by a first-time novelist rather than another book ground out by a seasoned and perhaps jaded pro.
We can't wait to see where his writing goes from here.
-- Reviewed by David
and Nancy Beckwith
"On Guerilla Gardening" by Richard Reynolds (Bloomsbury, $19)
The photo below shows a 15,000 square-foot "guerilla garden" located behind Forsyth Street in New York City. Created by a guerilla gardenener self-styled Purple 321, it was completed in secret in 1983 but was eventually destroyed by city authorities. Richard Reynolds' handbook for waging war on urban blight has been hailed by the Guardian as "a lovely book," a celebration of an international movement and how-to manual for gardening without boundaries -- a peoples' kind of social engineering. -- M. H.