Gray Mountain, John Grisham’s novel set alongside the economic collapse of 2008, may be the worst he’s ever written, which is especially disappointing given last year’s excellent sequel Sycamore Row. Less a well-plotted yarn, his latest reads like a screed against the evils of strip-mining, the process of extracting coal from underground troves by removing the topsoil and rock. For those in mountainous areas this usually means the loss of scenic valleys and deforestation, a subversion of fragile ecosystems in lands known for their natural beauty and wonder.
The results, as explained by Grisham, are blights against nature and health hazards to those people living in the vicinity. From pollution to the dangers of falling debris, there’s definitely a story here that could have been fascinating had Grisham focused more on crafting smart characters and a genuine plot, and less on putting forth such poorly written propaganda.
Grisham has created many smart, insightful characters over his long career, many of which have become legendary in the field of legal fiction. Samantha Kofer, the protagonist here, may be the dumbest one. A 29-year old graduate of Georgetown and Columbia Law pulling down a cool $180K a year doing a job she hates, she thought she had it good. The only daughter of divorced parents, one (mom) working in the Justice Department and the other (dad) a disbarred lawyer with a shady past (his disbarment spearheaded by the mom, interestingly), she soon finds herself without steady employment after the near-collapse of her corporate law firm suffers catastrophically losses.
After signing a deal for a one-year furlough that would keep her health insurance, she’s off to Brady, Virginia to join the Mountain Legal Aid Clinic, where she soon swaps ‘boring’ chores like filing papers for domestic abuse, meth addicts, and, eventually, the perils of black lung and death in the mountain valleys of the Appalachia.
More importantly, she meets Mattie Wyatt, head of the clinic and aunt to the sexy Donovan Gray, a man on a singular mission to take down Big Coal and earn reparations for those harmed by the evils of coal and strip-mining. Did I mention he’s sexy? Or that he flies planes and skirts the law? A dangerous man with some questionable ethics, no doubt, but a true mountain boy with the right kind of machismo a naive city girl finds appealing. Oh, he’s got a scrappy younger brother who’s equally sexy, though with a lot more rough edges. What’s not to love about this family?
So how helpful can a transplanted New York city girl be mixing in with regular folk? For starters, she’s a lawyer that’s never been inside a courtroom, appears unfamiliar with basic legal protocol, and apparently has no issue being an unlicensed (in Virginia) lawyer taking on cases of great importance.
Worse still, she’s an airhead, her internal dialogue a running commentary on cute boys and justifying rookie mistakes for – you guessed it – cute boys and heart-string causes. No lies, I had to stop reading several times to keep reminding myself that this was, indeed, a John Grisham novel and not the latest girl-centric YA isle filler. Samantha’s portrayal is so utterly superficial that I wouldn’t be surprised to learn a ghostwriter was hired for the bulk of the text.
Grisham is clearly ‘all in’ for the cause, framing villain here, predictably, as ‘Big Coal’. The ‘bad guys’ are all, conveniently enough, big corporations and nefarious legal outfits kept at a comfortable distance, often talked about but seldom seen. Characters speak like they’re spouting Wikipedia entries (or worse, Mother Jones PR), not real dialogue; I felt like I should be taking notes for a quiz.
There’s no subtlety, no nuance, or rationale, no anything that might give Grisham’s superficial vendetta against the coal industry any red meat to wrestle over. Even the lawlessness of the ‘good guys’ (all cute, in case you hadn’t figured it out) is forgiven as they’re warriors against the machine. What’s a little felonious breaking and entering, theft, gun violence, and other assorted crimes when there’s money to be made off the backs of dead trailer park children?
That Grisham would create such a narcissistic chowderhead as a ‘hero’ is an insult to those actually in the field, putting in real hours and hoping for real results. Then again, this is the writer who gave us the justifiable homicide of A Time to Kill, so at least he’s consistent in his moral outrage.
Not only is Gray Mountain the worst book that John Grisham has ever written, it’s one of the worst books of the year. It handles its anti-strip mining message like propaganda, minus the courtesy of giving readers any insight about how things actually work and function in the Appalachia. What’s most disappointing is how shockingly adrift Grisham’s plotting and characterizations are, areas he usually excels at. I wouldn’t be shocked to learn that the heavy lifting was left to an anonymous ghostwriter charged with infusing the vapidity of YA tripe with a legal thriller that, if filmed for a Hollywood movie, would probably make a decent legal thriller starring Matt Damon as one of the hunky brothers. Wait, don’t give them any ideas.