Scott Turow Essay - Critical Essays

Scott Turow American Literature Analysis

Turow describes himself as “neurotic,” driven to succeed by insecurities that originated in childhood. Despite his accomplishments, he seems to share the sentiments that his wife, Annette, expressed in a 1990 magazine interview, that his astonishing success “is all tenuous . . . not to be trusted.” Indeed, even when Turow became a millionaire after the publication of Presumed Innocent, the couple did not move from the four-bedroom house they had bought when Turow was a $60,000-per-year public prosecutor.

This same driven quality and distrust of success is very much in evidence both in Turow’s continued pursuit of demanding dual careers as lawyer and best-selling author and in his writings. Indeed, One L is testimony to Turow’s drive and ambition. Not content merely to survive the first year of Harvard Law School, Turow took on the additional job of writing about it—and himself. His self-created persona in his law school memoir is not unlike first-year law students everywhere, but his skill at conveying angst about ambition and ethical dilemmas is unique. Turow’s One L meditations about institutional shortcomings and the corrupting nature of ambition are echoed later in Rusty Sabich’s thoughts on politics and the prosecutor’s office in Presumed Innocent and in Sandy Stern’s reflections on his successful brother-in-law’s penchant for corruption in The Burden of Proof.

Indeed, the issues of a lawyer’s civic, professional, and personal obligations dominate all the later novels as well. Pleading Guilty weighs self-interest against loyalty to colleagues and firm. The Laws of Our Fathers features a trial like that of Presumed Innocent in which truth takes a backseat to legal wrangling and the silent competing agendas of participants. Personal Injuries argues that corruptibility can coexist with likeability, and even with admirable personal behavior. Reversible Errors shows how the enthusiastic pursuit of one’s professional duties can lead to a miscarriage of justice.

Although all of Turow’s works, even One L, are fraught with mystery, it is his fictional heroes’ moral dilemmas and especially the competing demands of family and the law that make his books so memorable. For his fictional protagonists, one dilemma always involves the competing demands of family and the law. In part, competition between home and court derives from the demands of a legal career. Rusty Sabich’s wife, Barbara, is alienated and bitter, not only about her husband’s affair with a coworker but also about his single-minded loyalty to his boss and to his job. Clara Stern is undone by the benign neglect with which she is treated while her litigator husband is developing his practice. In Pleading Guilty, Mack Malloy’s home life is a disaster, as are the marriages of the characters in The Laws of Our Fathers. The lawyers and court officers in Personal Injuries and Reversible Errors all suffer from misshapen domestic lives. These domestic-versus-professional quandaries that the legal protagonists confront—forcing them to choose between their obligation as officers of the court and their responsibilities toward their families or even themselves—lend Turow’s novels their resonance.

By way of explaining his phenomenal popularity, Turow has pointed out that the duality that characterizes his novels also characterizes American society in the early twenty-first century. The courtroom has replaced the church as the forum for dealing with the great sociological and philosophical issues of the day, such as abortion rights and surrogate motherhood. Large corporate firms have buried personal lawyer-client relationships and individual integrity under the weight of institutional procedure and the efficiencies of specialization. At the same time, Americans are wary of lawyers, who, with their knowledge of “the magic and sacred words,” have developed the ability to rationalize the immoral. Such knowledge, in the hands of self-conscious and conscientious individuals such as Rusty Sabich, poses a compelling conundrum, one that is at the center of human experience. It is not too much to say that Turow’s subject matter is, as William Faulkner characterized his own, “the human heart in conflict with itself.”

Turow has said that he feared Presumed Innocent would fall between two stools, “too literary for the mystery crowd and too much a mystery to be regarded as a serious novel.” Yet critics praised his first novel not only for its suspenseful plot but also for its elegant and philosophical voice. As with One L, Turow made good use of what he had experienced firsthand, re-creating the particulars surrounding a murder investigation and trial convincingly out of what he had learned during his career as a prosecutor. What lifts the novel above other courtroom procedurals, however, is in part Turow’s choice of the telling detail, which is rendered in nearly poetic terms. For example, the “Dickensian grimness” of the prosecutors’ offices is said to make the quality of light there “a kind of yellow fluid, like old shellac.” Such fine turns of phrase economically set the mood and grant readers insight into the mind-set of Turow’s first-person narrator and protagonist. At the same time, the fact that Rusty Sabich sometimes uses vocabulary more reminiscent of Raymond Chandler than Emily Dickinson lets readers know that Turow has not ventured too far afield from his chosen genre, the suspense thriller.

Reviews of Turow’s next book, The Burden of Proof, were not as uniformly favorable as they had been for Presumed Innocent. Some criticized its style as “stodgy”; others likened its plot to Greek tragedy. To be sure, it is a very different book, more a character study of its reserved, superficially stodgy hero and his family than a thriller. The primary attribute it shares with its predecessor, however, is that it is told from the point of view of a lawyer obsessed not as much with solving a mystery as with discovering the truth of his own involvement in an ambiguous death—a truth that no legal proceeding can uncover. As in Presumed Innocent, such a truth can only be plumbed by an individual with a philosophical cast of mind and a penchant for self-examination.

In The Burden of Proof, Turow once again puts his own legal experiences to good use as background, drawing on his work as a white-collar criminal-defense counsel to create a world in which evil is personified by a wheeler-dealer commodities-firm owner who happens also to be Stern’s brother-in-law, Dixon Hartnell. Although Hartnell is involved with Clara’s suicide and threatens the stability of Stern’s remaining family, he is still a likeable character who practices his own brand of honor. This complex characterization points to Turow’s deft hand not only with character delineation but also, once again, to his insight into the ambiguous nature of morality. This insight, which seems to grow out of, even mandate, Turow’s dual existence as lawyer and writer, is clearly the greatest strength of his books, helping them to rise above the conventions of the legal thriller.

One L

First published: 1977

Type of work: Memoir

A student at Harvard University’s law school chronicles the turbulent first year of his legal studies.

One L has, for good reason, become required reading for those thinking of entering law school. Having scored in the stratosphere on the Law School Admissions Test, Turow had his choice of law schools, and he chose to enter one of the country’s oldest and largest, and arguably the most prestigious, of legal education programs, Harvard Law School. What happened to Turow during his first year there, 1975-1976, is the subject of One L, a nonfiction account Turow reconstructed from the diary he kept during eight overwhelming months. While Turow’s object is to explore emotions and events that he personally experienced, his meditations on the system of legal education make it clear that these experiences are by no means unique, either to him or to Harvard Law School. The continuing popularity of One L attests to the universality of its insights.

As more than one reviewer has pointed out, part of the appeal of One L is that it reads like a good thriller, as Turow steers the reader through the sustained hysteria leading up to exams and the ensuing race to make Law Review. He relates his own reactions as well as those of his fellow students to the burdensome workload, to the indignities of the fabled Socratic teaching method, and to the ceaseless competition among classmates.

Along the way, he introduces some memorable personalities. Turow made only minor efforts to change names and otherwise to disguise the real-life characters who peopled his first year at law school. The most dominant of these, not unnaturally, are the professors, on whom the students’...

(The entire section is 3733 words.)