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Review of John Grisham's New Book "Gray Mountain"

Author: Michael Goodreau

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The latest novel by John Grisham, Gray Mountain, is a provocative indictment of the energy companies that level mountains in efforts to mine the seams of coal buried deep within.

The latest novel by John Grisham, Gray Mountain, is a provocative indictment of the energy companies that level mountains in efforts to mine the seams of coal buried deep within.

Grisham, as all great novelists, is evolving as a writer. In Gray Mountain, he has combined his love of law with his gifts as a writer to produce a compelling spellbinder. By the turn of the last page, it leaves the reader indignant, inflamed and ready to grab a pitchfork and march to the offices of coal companies that are raping our land and killing the inhabitants of the Appalachian mountains by the thousands over the course of decades past and decades to come.

Far from the small Appalachian town of Brady, Virginia, the story opens in Manhattan's financial district with Samantha Kofer, a late twenties Georgetown Law School graduate, one of a thousand lawyers slavishly working 80-100 weeks. Her clients are billionaires; her work, the commercial real estate department of Scully & Pershing, the largest law firm in the world.

With the economic collapse of 2008, Samantha soon finds herself on the street holding a cardboard box with a flimsy commitment to bring her back in a year or so tucked inside it. The offer comes with a string- she needs to spend the down-time interning for a non-profit law firm; she takes the offer so she can retain health insurance, and winds up at Mountain Legal Aide Clinic, deep in the dells and hollers, ridges and mountains of rural Appalachia.

Samantha soon finds out that law can be a tool to help the little guy, and as she meets the people of Brady and the surrounding counties, her perceptions begin to shift in what it means to be a lawyer. After winning her first judgment in favor of her client, she sees, for the first time, how she can use her degree to help real people in need instead of being a cog in a billionaire's game. “As a lawyer, she had never felt so worthy. As a person, she had never felt so needed”.

The other predominant theme in Gray Mountain is the nefarious activities of the strip-mining companies peppered throughout Appalachia. The actions of these companies begin to outrage her, and one gets the impression the plot and people are merely instruments required by Grisham to get people to read his book about what these coal companies are up to, all in an effort to raise awareness among us, the reading public.

Gray Mountain has the requisite 'potential for love' weaving throughout; Samantha leaves the reader wondering if she will go for Donovan or his brother Jeff. This is answered abruptly midway through with a jaw dropping revelation.

Grisham is developing a style that hints at a cynicism about life (reminiscent of Martin Cruz Smith's Inspector Arkady Renko) that comes to all who live long enough. On monetary damages in a coal suit, Dead kids aren't worth much.....they don't work.” At the Christmas town parade, “Old Saint Nick waved to the boys and girls....Through a loudspeaker he chanted, “Ho, Ho, Ho,” but nothing else.” On the hollowness of NYC, “Karen sprang for two tickets to a Broadway musical, a rage that was nothing more than a made-for-tourists rip-off. They left at intermission...”

A running theme throughout Gray Mountain is that big business is very difficult to fight. They have endless resources to continue their murderous activities. “The hurdles and delays discourage other miners from filing claims, and they certainly scare off the lawyers. In the long run, the companies win, as always.”

But, as Samantha steps into the role of advocate and litigator, she comes to understand her dis-barred, formerly world-class litigator father. Donovan Gray, cut from the same cloth as her father, explains the allure of lawsuit trials. “I love them. It’s the only place where the little guy can go toe-to-toe on a level field with a big, crooked corporation. A person with nothing—no money, no power—nothing but a set of facts can file a lawsuit and force a billion-dollar company to show up for a fair fight.”

Ultimately, Samantha comes to accept Donovan Gray's philosophy when dealing with criminal enterprises masking themselves as legitimate businesses, “He assumed the bad guys—the coal companies and now the government—would cut corners and cheat and do whatever to win. If they played dirty, why couldn’t he?”

Through the seamless weaving of numerous subplots involving the poor in Appalachia, Grisham highlights the damage that meth is wreaking on small town America, “...meth is the number two cash crop behind coal”. He doesn't shy away from the reality that people are a mess and do stupid things, while allowing for small successes that keep the novel from getting to dark.

Grisham, with unflinching honesty, illustrates how the Federal Government itself is but a pawn for big business, as the FBI is reduced to the role of bull dogs doing a master's bidding. The subtle point that good people do bad things is conveyed in the person of Agent Frohmeyer, who believes he is working for the good of America, when in reality he is a tool helping suppress information for a billionaire caught with his britches down. A Russian criminal oligarch, no less. In a search for incriminating files that could wipe out a billion dollar coal corporation, Samantha finds herself lying to the FBI. This would have been unthinkable before arriving in Brady and getting to know the people 'Big Coal' have destroyed in their insatiable, greed inspired quest for ever more coal.

Overall, Gray Mountain is a fast read; the story line canters, with dialogue both crisp and realistic. But, he does take time for softness. ““How are you doing?” he asked sincerely, a hand on her knee as if she’d fallen down the steps.” Grisham also poses some thought provoking questions, “Once you accept death, is it easier to charge into the darkness?”

As soon as one thinks a new case might be the main story plot, it's resolved and another tale of woe comes into play. The seamless weaving of so many subplots can only be pulled off by a writer of Grisham's skill. This book is rife with them; fascinating micro-expose's in their own right, but one realizes at some point in the read that all stand as bastions to support the primary issue, which is the abuse and criminality of coal mining corporations in Appalachia, Donovan's home and his life's goal to protect, “These are the most biodiverse mountains in North America, much older than any other range. Home to thousands of species of plants and wildlife not found anywhere else. It took an eternity for them to become what they are.”

The end comes abruptly, leaving the reader wanting more and hoping the saga of big coal and Samantha Kofer isn't over with Gray Mountain, but merely the beginning of a series featuring her continued fight against companies that are literally removing our mountains, one at a time. If left unchecked, there will be no more Appalachian Mountains, and this is the true message of Gray Mountain.

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