© 2014 John Grisham
In late 2008, New York’s financial sector and the economy built around it began hemorrhaging jobs. Among the casualties were the junior ranks of lawyers at Samantha Kofer’s firm, including herself. Reduced from six figures to none in a blink of an eye, the only thing Samantha was left with was the promise of health insurance – if she agreed to a year of pro bono work while the economy healed. Leaving New York behind for a small mining town in Virginia, Samantha discovers a different world, one of grinding poverty amid the mesmerizing beauty of the mountains. Having never stepped inside a courtroom before, she is introduced to the spectre of ordinary law: helping real people with real problems. Every aspect of Gray Mountain is one Grisham has played with before, in The Street Lawyer, The Rainmaker, and The Pelican Brief; despite those successes, however, the story never takes off here; there are pieces of a good story, but no structure. Throughout, Samantha’s attention is taken up with a handful of small cases, while an epic trial builds in the background. The suspense bursts with a plot twist that could have gone places, but instead leaves Samantha leading the reader in circles as she tries to make up her mind — which she never does. The chief problem is that Sam isn’t especially active in the story; she is passive and ambigious; things happened around her and to her, but she doesn’t know what to do herself, so she just drifts back and forth with the tide until the sun does down and the novel is over, with the great conflict never having been realized. If the aim of the novel was to depict a young professional adapting to strange new circumstances and developing some measure of self-direction, the execution is lacking. The only passion here is Grisham’s own: he’s no stranger to political themes in his work, but Gray Mountain is as subtle as a strip-mine in indicting Big Coal. If the denizens of town aren’t dying of blacklung, they’re being run over by coal trucks, struck by flying boulders from the mines, or being driven into bankruptcy by the coal companies’ lawyers. The economic devastation of the Appalachians — the tragic ruin of its people and the mountains — is a story that needs to be told but having Snidely Whiplash as a villain won’t invite anyone to consider people’s plight here; it’s a case of preaching to the choir and running off the visitors. The backdrop and some of the minor threads go a long way to making this of interest, but Gray Mountain remains second-rate.