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Rudy Baylor could become, in the hands of another author, a schlimazel, an inevitable victim of bad luck. Or he could be an example of late 1800s naturalism, in which all manner of disaster strikes a poor fellow who is powerless to change his destiny. Rudy goes beyond both character types because he is resilient, good-humored, smart, and still capable of idealism. He possesses an unflashy intelligence: He passes the bar exam when many others fait, and he thinks on his feet well during the trial. To survive, he does what he has to do with at least a small measure of dignity: He grubs for jobs at established firms, he works in the cash-payment underground economy of a college bar to keep his meager earnings safe from creditors, and he even steels himself to chase ambulances with Deck. Finally, in a society in which money matters, Rudy ironically develops a greater sense of caring through his experience with the Blacks. He is thoughtful about his situation and honest about the juggling of ethical standards that he performs — such self-awareness puts readers on his side.

Typical of Grisham's heroes, Rudy is bereft of family, with a dead father (who hated lawyers) and an estranged mother — the same situation as Mitch McDeere. Grisham places his characters as solitary individuals who have no one to rely upon but themselves.

Grisham populates Rudy's quest for job security with a striking assortment of characters, especially the lawyers. Judge Kipler does not hide his appealingly acerbic attitude toward lawyers. Rudy's courtroom adversary representing Great Benefit, Leo F. Drummond, is both a leading attorney in his community and, clearly, a corrupt one, as he taps Rudy's telephone. Behind his mask of respectability lies a person potentially as vile as his clients. Grisham allows mystery to hover over J. Lyman "Bruiser" Stone/ who is both a ferocious litigator who presides over the firm of ambulance chasers, and a criminal who fears a police investigation. The most fully developed supporting player is Deck Shifflet. Unable to pass the bar, he terms himself a "paralawyer" and chases cases on Bruiser Stone's behalf. A divorced compulsive gambler with a nervous tic and a generally unhealthy appearance. Deck operates on the grimy fringes of the legal profession and seems willing to dabble in Stone's illegal activities. His friendship with Rudy attests to Rudy's tolerance and gregariousness. Rudy and the Black case could give Deck a financial windfall and the accompanying respectability; his pathetic career consists of attempts to latch onto a real lawyer so that he can share in the wealth and glory of a big case. The women in the book remain clichés: Miss Birdie is the lonely old widow, and Kelly is the abused wife who will not turn her husband over to the police. Grisham's excuse for not developing them (readers should admit that except for Reggie Love in The Client, Grisham does not produce nuanced female characters) could be that for Rudy they fill archetypal roles. He becomes Miss Birdie's surrogate son, helping her with chores, living at her home, and he becomes Kelly's knight and protector, a function that gets him into a violent confrontation at the novel's closing. Originally without family, Rudy gains a mother in Miss Birdie, then leaves her for a mate in Kelly, thereby "growing up" through the course of the novel.

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