Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1615
Now that husband-and-wife attorney team Wes and Mary Grace Payton have won a forty-one-million-dollar verdict in the seventy-one-day Baker v. Krane Chemical trial, they can take their children out for pizza. As recounted in John Grisham’s The Appeal, it has been four long years since the couple had taken the case that was to cast them into bare-bones poverty. They are deeply in debt, living in a run-down campus apartment, practicing law in a shabby office whose rent has not been paid in months, employing a courageous staff that has gone without wages, and dreading the appearance of the banker to whom they owe four hundred thousand dollars. Before the trial, their life had been replete with a luxury home and sports cars. Luckily, they have a friend in minister Denny Ott, who also provides spiritual sustenance to the victims of Krane Chemical’s toxic dumping in the water supply of Bowmore, Mississippi.
After hearing the “guilty” verdict, the primary victim, Jeannette Baker, who lost her husband and young son to cancer, finally stops crying. Although her grief provided her with courage throughout the lengthy and excruciating trial, she nevertheless has no faith that she will ever see a penny of her enormous verdict and continues to live in her trailer so she can visit the graves of her loved ones. The other victims, many in advanced stages of cancer, are eager to finalize the case in order to experience a modicum of personal satisfaction in the just verdict and to have some much needed financial relief.
Simultaneously, Wall Street billionaire Carl Trudeau, the chief executive officer of Krane Chemical, is apoplectic about Krane’s plummeting stock and his loss of the case. He never pauses to think about the cancer rate in Bowmore, which has skyrocketed to fifteen times the national average and which has been caused by his company’s illegal dumping of chemical waste into the town’s water supply. He simply carries out his luxurious lifestyle with his bubble-headed, anorexic trophy wife, Brianna. On the evening of the punishing verdict, he attends a highbrow party at which he buys a hideous piece of dubious art for twenty million dollars. After all, he will never give the others on the Forbes world’s wealthiest list the satisfaction of seeing him cringe over his enormous financial losses. Trudeau fully realizes if the verdict is not overturned, all the other victims will come forward for a bite of what he considers his exclusive pie. On a balcony overlooking New York City, Trudeau vows to win back his money and gain much, much moreafter the appeal.
Another player in these legal and financial high jinks is Barry Rinehart, a nefarious, behind-the-scenes fixer who, in a secret meeting with Trudeau, promises him a bought-and-paid-for judge to be elected to the Supreme Court of Mississippi. Rinehart’s man, Tony Zachary, has located a squeaky-clean, churchgoing, baseball-coach local attorney who can easily be elected with a campaign chest of three million dollars funded by various special-interest groups in Washington, D.C., who are intent on crippling trial lawyers by bringing about legislation that places limits on monetary awards in lawsuits. Trudeau jumps at Rinehart’s bait. After all, this is Trudeau’s opportunity to recoup his loss and make billions more by purposely causing Krane Chemical’s stock to fall. He will buy as much stock as possible at deflated prices and sit back and watch his bottom line grow bigger and bigger after his own newly elected judge overturns the Baker v. Krane Chemical verdict.
Meanwhile, attorney Ron Fisk has been approached by Zachary, Rinehart’s henchman, promising Fisk a seat on the Mississippi Supreme Court. Zachary assures Fisk, a conservative, that he has been selected to run against the incumbent judge Shelia McCarthy because he is a family-values type of guy, with no skeletons in his closet. After all, McCarthy, Zachary confides, is much too liberal. It does not matter in the slightest that Fisk has no judicial experience. Leave the business aspects of the election to him, Zachary tells Fisk. Just get out there, look good, and say the things the voters want to hear. Fisk, who cannot believe his good luck, is whisked off to Washington in a private jet to meet the bigwigs who will finance his campaign.
In addition, Zachary has rounded up a red-herring candidate, a highly unelectable shady alcoholic lawyer named Coley Clete, to run against Fisk and McCarthy. Clete’s candidacy serves to generate negative headlines that will make Fisk look much better by comparison.
While the appeal to the forty-one-million-dollar verdict is proceeding, shyster lawyers invade Bowmore for a piece of the pie that is sure to come about if the verdict is not overturned. Wes and Mary Grace, who study the sixteen-thousand-page trial transcript and continue to battle the opposing lawyers’ myriad objections, manage to attract more clients. Their financial situation improves, although they are not making much progress in paying down their bank loans. They hold their breath, waiting for an outcome on the appeal in their favor or a rich settlement from Krane Chemical, which could turn them overnight into millionaires and bring great financial relief to their suffering friends and neighbors. In this regard, the Krane lawyers set up a meeting, bogusly holding out bait for a large settlementall of which serves to lower the price of Krane stock when the settlement falls through.
A nasty election ensues for the seat of the Mississippi Supreme Court judge who will be instrumental in determining the fate of the appeal. McCarthy is sideswiped by the millions of dollars poured into her opponent Fisk’s campaign. In campaign advertisements, she is painted as a liberal, a supporter of gun control, and an advocate for same-sex marriageissues traditionally not viewed favorably in that region of the United States. Despite her best efforts and an infusion of funds from the state’s Trial Lawyers’ Association, McCarthy loses and Fisk takes her seat. He has managed to look good and speak well on the stump, but he has remained clueless about the underhanded operation of his campaign.
All the while, behind the scenes, the strings of the puppet people are being pulled by Rinehart, whose company specializes in rigging elections, and Wall Street tycoon Trudeau, who sits back gleefully watching the price of Krane stock tumble and waiting to buy large quantities of Krane stock at bargain-basement prices. He is safe in the knowledge that Krane stock will turn around and skyrocket, and he will gain billions after the judge he just bought overturns the verdict. Meanwhile, in a vindictive move, Trudeau arranges to buy the bank where Wes and Mary Grace have their long-overdue loans, forcing the couple into bankruptcy. None of those ignorant people, Trudeau swears emphatically, will ever get one thin dime of his money.
Although the stage is set for Trudeau to make a financial comeback, a glitch upsets his plans. Fisk’s son is injured in a baseball accident and rushed to the local hospital. After an examination, he is given a clean bill of health and returns home, shaken but apparently okay. As time goes on, however, it appears that in fact he did suffer a serious injury when the ball hit his head, and he slips into a coma. An investigation determines that the hospital was negligent because the overworked physician read the wrong X-rays. Sadly, the son suffers permanent brain damage, and the newly elected Fisk is left with a serious dilemma. While he is certainly free to engage a trial lawyer, sue the hospital, and win a large monetary verdict, he realizes that he will become a laughingstock if he chooses this pathafter all, he won the election based on the premise that trial lawyers were hurting corporations, and thus causing employees to lose jobs, because of enormous verdicts. Ultimately, while Fisk, as expected, votes to overturn the huge Krane Chemical verdict, he does so with a heavy heart and a statement decrying the process of his decision. This does not help the victims in Bowmore, but Trudeau is catapulted to financial heaven.
Unlike the traditional legal thriller, which usually ends with a trial, Grisham’s The Appeal begins with a trial and goes on to focus, for three hundred pages, on the event that is usually overlookedthe subsequent appeal. Indeed, after the plot machinations of a meaty legal thriller, readers often blow a sigh of relief at the completion of the trial, when traditionally the corporate lawyers get their comeuppance for harming the disenfranchised victims. However, in The Appeal, readers must wait to see if any of the victims and their struggling lawyers ever get a dime of the juicy forty-one-million-dollar verdict, although the outcome is not surprising. After reading about the corporate and legal shenanigans behind fixed elections, they know there is no happy ending.
Although Grisham has been criticized for his weak characterizationhis characters appearing like paper-doll cutoutsthere is little doubt that he is a fine storyteller. In The Appeal, he surpasses his reputation as a story-meister. Indeed, this powerful and shocking tale opens readers’ eyes to the wheelings and dealings behind what appear to be benign local elections. In short, Grisham’s book shows how elections can be bought and paid for and how any candidate, regardless of experience, can be elected if he or she has enough money to attract voters through negative thirty-second sound bites that sling mud and assassinate reputations. No doubt Grisham, who admits to being an election addict and who spent two terms in the State of Mississippi House of Representatives, is deeply aware of how big money controls political races.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 16
Booklist 104, no. 16 (April 15, 2008): 61.
Entertainment Weekly, no. 976 (February 1, 2008): 78.
Forbes 181, no. 6 (March 24, 2008): 38.
The New York Times, January 28, 2008, p. 48.
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