Saturday, December 26, 2009

A Time To Kill

by John Grisham

Two rednecks abduct, torture and rape a ten year old black girl in a small Mississippi town.  At their arraignment, the girl’s father blows them away with an M-16.  He is taken into custody, and Jake Brigance, a young white solo practitioner who has some experience with defending poor blacks, comes to his defense.  So begins a nightmare for Brigance and those around him, as the town is split in two, the Klan makes violent attempts on his life, the judicial system is stacked against him, and defeat looms as the trial’s end approaches.

It’s a very compelling first novel, better-written than his second, the unimpressive The Firm, and with all the thrills that The Summons lacked.  Grisham delves into every seedy detail of the judicial system of Ford County, Mississippi, how politics and biased judges and money and votes and favors play a part in every step of the process.  He introduces fully fleshed-out characters, with unsympathetic streaks in his hero and amusing backstories for the supporting cast.  The end was a bit abrupt and shallow (just imagine the girl was white? That’s all it takes to dispel entrenched prejudices and bad feelings?), and left me feeling that a lot of ends were left way too loose (so, I guess the death threats never came to anything after the black guy was acquitted, they all lived happily ever after, the end) – but in all it was an admirable page-turner, richly evocative of the American south.

three stars

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Dead Souls

by Nikolai Gogol
translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volohonsky

A likeable middle aged petty official, Chichikov, comes to the village of N. and starts buying up dead muzhiks from various landowners.  The idea is to transfer ownership of the titular dead souls (in the sense of persons, not actual souls) to Chichikov while they’re still listed as living for tax purposes, until the end of the year.  Then Chichikov will own these serfs, on paper, and presumably be able to use them as property to stake out a loan and become a large landowner himself.

It’s a remarkably funny book; the landowners are sharp parodies, marked by greed or ignorance or self-inflation.  Because of the townsfolk’s tendency to gossip and worship the veneer of respectability and wealth, Chichikov is treated like a prince amongst the petty officials, and a celebration is thrown in his honor. Very suddenly however, rumors flare up that the serfs he bought are all dead, and that he was planning on eloping with the Governor's daughter. In the confusion that ensues, the backwardness of the irrational, gossip-hungry townspeople is most delicately conveyed. Absurd suggestions come to light, such as the possibility that Chichikov is Napoleon in disguise or the notorious and retired 'Captain Kopeikin,' who had lost an arm and a leg during a war. The now disgraced traveler is immediately ostracized from the company he had been enjoying and has no choice but to flee the town in disgrace.  There is a second book, but much truncated, unfinished, and not nearly as funny as the first.  This edition is fine for Gogol scholars, but for those who just wish to enjoy this “poem novel” should stop at the first book.

four stars