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The Appeal    by John Grisham order for
by John Grisham
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Doubleday, 2008 (2008)
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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

At first, The Appeal feels like déja vu, a new Erin Brockovich. But though he makes the novel absorbing by populating it with colorful characters - ones readers will root for as well as those who are despicable or simply naive - John Grisham wraps his fictional novel around an exposé of corporate greed and the manipulation of what should be a democratic political process for the election of state Supreme Court justices.

The Appeal opens to the jury decision on a long-running, highly emotional, hotly contested trial - that of Krane Chemical Corporation for its pesticide plant's deliberate, long-term contamination of the groundwater in Bowmore, Mississippi, where city water has been officially undrinkable for three years and clean water has to be trucked in. Plaintiff Jeannette Baker lost husband, young son, friends and neighbors to early deaths from various forms of cancer and leukemia - the cancer rate in what a journalist has labeled Cancer County, U.S.A. is fifteen times the national average. Not only does the jury decide in the plaintiff's favor, but it awards punitive damages of thirty-eight million dollars.

The plaintiff's exhausted lawyers, Wes and Mary Grace Payton, ignored other clients and mortgaged everything they owned in their devotion to the case - Grisham tells us that 'Stepping into a major trial is like plunging with a weighted belt into a dark and weedy pond ... you always think you're drowning.' They're 'now operating out of an abandoned dime store in a lesser part of town'. After the jury decision, they look forward to financial relief and getting themselves and their small children back to a more normal life. There will clearly be an appeal to the nine justices of the Mississippi Supreme Court by Jared Kurtin and his 'defense army' but it's a slam-dunk isn't it?

Not so fast, says John Grisham, not in the 21st century, when big money can hire fixers like consultant Barry Rinehard, whose 'firm specializes in elections.' Hearing the jury decision and anticipating a major stock slide based on shareholders' expectation that it has opened the floodgates to hundreds of lawsuits, enraged billionaire Krane CEO Carl Trudeau declares to his executives that 'Not one dime of our hard-earned profits will ever get into the hands of those trailer park peasants.' He manipulates corporate stocks to not only avoid losses but make major financial gains from the debacle. And he puts his fate in the hands of a company that makes its living in states that elect their appellate and supreme court judges - Rinehard will shift the balance on the bench to win the appeal.

Of course it's all in the Macchiavellian details, which are laid out with a very disturbing credibility. Carl buys his supreme court judge at the bargain price of eight million dollars, and readers see exactly how it's done. This is interspersed with heartrending glimpses into the lives of folk in Cancer County and of the two driven lawyers fighting the fight for them - who suffer ongoing retribution. As always, John Grisham does a masterful job of weaving an important legal issue into an entertaining novel, injecting a surprising twist into his realistic ending. The saddest part of this tragic tale? In his Author's Note at the end, Grisham tells us 'there is a lot of truth in this story. As long as private money is allowed in judicial elections, we will see competing interests fight for seats on the bench ... The results are not far off the mark.'

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