One cannot tell from reading his latest novel, Brain Storm, whether Richard Dooling’s clients in Omaha, Nebraska, are in good hands, but his readers certainly are. Having honed his narrative skills in two previous novels, Critical Care (1992) and White Man’s Grave (1994), Dooling, a National Book Award finalist, wastes no time getting the reader’s attention. “ The beheadings are almost identical,’ said Joe Watson, placing his memo on the walnut expanse of Arthur Mahoney’s worktable.” Catchy, certainly, but what is that walnut worktable doing in this Raymond Chandlerish sentence? Perhaps it is there to indicate that things are not necessarily what they seem.
The beheadings mentioned here are from two computer games, CarnageMaster and Greek SlaughterHouse, and the aptly named Watson is no Philip Marlowe or Sherlock Holmes, but only a first-year associate at a prestigious St. Louis law firm. With 572 lawyers worldwide, the firm of Stern, Pale & Covin specializes in corporate law and has perfected the twin arts of “good lawyering” (that is, “ass-covering”) and the computer-assisted multitasking that has made “interleaved billing” the latest and fastest means to profits for the firm and a partnership for the ambitious associate. Todd Boron “made partner by billing 3,500 hours a year, every year, for nine years, which averages out to 67.3 billable hours per week, every week, which comes out to 11.2 billable hours per day—if you assume he took Sundays off for spiritual upgrades—and 9.6 billable hours per day, every day—if you assume he didn’t.”
Watson may dismiss “Boron the moron” as “a legal robot,” but his own status seems only marginally better. He is a legal geek specializing in computer-assisted research who (in the hyper-masculine world of corporate law) worries about his small office but takes pride in the size of his RAM (random access memory) and who keeps careful track of his own billable hours in a frantic effort to keep up with the monster mortgage payments on the suburban house his wife insisted they buy.
Feeling himself on trial at the office and at home (where he literally cannot afford to spend much time), Watson feels not just beleaguered but guilty. He should, for he is Catholic. His sense of guilt is compounded by his failure to heed his calling—not to the priesthood, but to criminal law. This is not to say that his sense of vocation was originally strong, let alone divinely inspired. As Watson confesses (adapting Prussian army officer Carl von Clausewitz on war and politics), law school was for him little more than a continuation of his undergraduate education by other means.
Something of a Saul on the road to the Damascus of junior partnership, Watson is struck down not by the light of God but by the court order of an irascible federal judge who does to Watson what is done to all lawyers recently admitted to the bar in that area: He assigns him a pro bono case.
Watson’s case is hardly typical. It is a murder case to be tried in federal court, because the murder took place on a military base. In this case the U.S. attorney is seeking the death penalty “under the Hate Crime Motivation or Vulnerable Victim provisions of the new federal sentencing guidelines,” ostensibly because the victim was both African American and deaf. In fact, the U.S. Attorney hopes to run for a seat in the U.S. Senate and knows that the case offers the opportunity for a great deal of free favorable publicity. Of course, pro bono cases are not good for a corporate law firm’s bottom line and even worse for a firm’s image when the case attracts so much media attention and the defendant is as unlikable and seemingly guilty as James F. Whitlow, an ignorant racist with a “Jesus hates niggers” tattoo and ties to a local militia.
Although he at first tries to help his young associate, senior partner Arthur Mahoney decides to cut the firm’s losses by cutting Watson loose when he refuses to plead Whitlow out. In a way Watson wants this case, wants to practice real, criminal law, but in another way he does not, because he feels incompetent and, of course, guilty about feeling incompetent and about how his family will have to suffer as a result of his decision to defend a creature as loathsome as Whitlow.
Although cut off from the firm’s resources and from his $100,000 a year salary, $10,000 semi-annual bonus, and family, Watson receives help from a number of interested parties. One is Judge Stang, “a cantankerous graduate of the Roy Bean school of jurisprudence,” who has knowledge...
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