Review: The Street Lawyer

The Street Lawyer
The Street Lawyer
John Grisham
Doubleday, 1998

Review Copyright © 1998 Garret Wilson — February 19, 1998, 10:00pm

John Grisham’s The Street Lawyer is little more than an advocate for the homeless masquerading as a legal thriller — or maybe it’s a legal thriller hidden behind the mask of homeless advocacy. Either way, this is not Grisham’s best novel, nor is it an exceptional novel in general. It is a fun story that makes us think, but probably not enough.

Having finished The Runaway Jury a few months back, I was prepared for a twisting plot with surprises at every turn. Not exactly. When you have read the first few chapters of Street Lawyer, take a guess about how it ends. You’ll be correct, more or less. Whether you want to think that anyone would do many of the actions the hero takes is another story altogether.

This story is about a lawyer who is almost killed by a homeless man and then quits a very high paying job at a huge law firm in D.C. to almost go broke helping the homeless. Oh, I almost forgot: he uncovers a somewhat sinister plot by his former employer, although a bad lawyer or two were the only ones who knew about it, so it’s not as if a huge conspiracy existed. Grisham also throws in a marriage that is falling apart — this either helps to explain the "work and get rich with no time for others" attitude of the hero, or simply adds filler to the story, whichever way you choose to look at it.

Grisham did quite a bit of homework on the homeless in D.C. for this story, and it shows. Characters spout statistics on every other page, and the author’s actions sound like what investigating the homeless situation must have been for Grisham. The novel might succeed in raising awareness of the homeless situation, but it probably won’t bring about much action, for several reasons: the details of the homeless are set forward in their bare essence, without much of a plot to add meat to the story. In other words, we’ve heard it all before, and this time we don’t even have an exceptional story to go along with it.

Furthermore, if details of the homeless are too abundant on one hand, they are too scarce on the other — if one were to go by Street Lawyer along, one would still be left wondering, "Why are these people in that condition? Why should I help them, besides simply not evicting homeless people illegally?" The Street Lawyer makes us think about the homeless, but not quite enough. The plot is best if you think about it as little as possible.

But John Grisham is not a bad writer, and Street Lawyer is not a bad novel. This work, as usual, does it’s job of presenting a story that is fun to read and is difficult to put down. Well, not all that difficult. I enjoyed the book, but I guess I’m still waiting for another Runaway Jury.