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The Rooster Bar (2017)
Book Reviews

The Rooster Bar (2017)

Grisham’s student loan thriller can be entertaining – as long as you’re willing to look its message of self-inflicted victimization.

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It’s been quite a year for John Grisham fans, especially those who enjoy the lawyer-turned-author’s lighter fare. Just this summer came the breezy, beach-ready Camino Island – Grisham’s 30th novel for adults – which was a nice vacation from his usual legal thriller fare. It’s back to basics with The Rooster Bar, in which Grisham paints a perverse fairy tale of moral uncertainty starring three recalcitrant heroes fighting back against a system that’s unduly burdened them with student loans. Or something like that.

To fully enjoy Grisham’s latest legal caper you’ll have to suspend your disbelief a bit; Grisham admits to playing “fast and loose with reality” in the acknowledgements. He cites as inspiration for his legal farce a 2014 expose in The Atlantic by Paul Campos titled “The Law-School Scam”, which is an interesting entree to Grisham’s appetizer. There’s an underlying theme present here I found disturbing: one isn’t entirely responsible for one’s own actions, and that any further actions done in the pursuit of rectifying said grievances are totally justified.

Our story follows four students enrolled at the Foggy Bottom Law School in Washington, DC, a place where legal students practically grow on trees. It’s not exactly top-tier, ranking just slightly lower on the pecking order of respectability than George Washington and Georgetown. Overly generous admission standards and questionable enrollment policies meant it’s pass rate was a miserable 56 percent, pushing out graduates of substandard ability and with maximum financial burden.

Mark Frazier is one such student, a regular Joe with fairly regular life, who fell for the school’s slick brochures and promises that a legal degree was the ticket to success. Todd Lucero was likewise recruited, regretting the decision to enroll ever since and bartending at the fortunately named Rooster Bar. There’s Gordon Tanner, the athletic and popular kid from West Virginia, engaged to his high school sweetie and destined for greater things. One problem: he’s bipolar and off his meds, which is having disastrous effects on both his psyche and well-being.

We’re finally introduced to Zola Maal, a lapsed Muslim who developed a healthy sex life (with Gordon, as it happens), and is herself a struggling law student. Making things worse is that her parents entered the country illegally, eventually settling in New Jersey, where Zola was born, granting her instant American citizenship. The rest of the family, however, never became naturalized, and now face deportation after being rounded up by the Feds.

Our group is just barely squeaking by, scrounging for bartending tips and slaving away as interns in hope they’ll land employment after graduating. As their student debt spirals out of control they come to start reality of their situation: “None of us should be in law school and now we’re on over our heads…” Their quartet becomes a trio when Gordon, in a bipolar blitz, commits suicide by jumping off the Arlington Memorial Bridge, leaving behind a mountain of debt and information on the one he feels is responsible: Hinds Rackley, dubbed The Great Satan by Gordon, is a ‘“Wall Street lawyer turned investment crook” with controlling interests in a vast Byzantine network of shady deals and profiteering conspiracies, some of which may (or may not) be entirely legal, including the Foggy Bottom Law School.

Now, just shy of graduation, the three opt to take a bad situation and make it worse by eschewing law school entirely. The new plan is to accept defeat and cut their losses, assuming new identities and practice a particular flavor of ‘law’ under the radar and out in the open. The scheme is simple: hang around heavily crowded hospitals and courtrooms with potential clients and open dockets, scanning for those desperate enough to hire a lawyer for cash-money on the spot. It’s easy money, if you can fake it.

And with that, our trio of anti-heroes assume their new identities: Mark Frazier becomes Mark Upshaw, Todd Lucero Todd Lane, and Zola Maal the new Zola Parker of freshly minted firm Upshaw, Parker & Lane, with a familiar address: The Rooster Bar. Their philosophy simple: “It’s best to keep lying. With our practice, when in doubt – keep lying.” says Todd.

Their looming dread of financial ruin is exacerbated by periodic emails from loan servicers, outfits designated by the US Government to dispel student loans – and collect, preferably with interest. These ‘updates’ are presented as continual harassment, with the grand totals of each borrowed loan hanging like financial millstones around each poor student’s neck. Collectively, they’re in over $600,000 of debt, with no realistic way to pay it off.

There’s an interesting story here, one that might’ve made a decent legal thriller from the man who practically invented the genre. In the United States, millions of students were convinced their “only” way to financial freedom and independence is through college. That graduates earn more than non-graduates, enjoy better health and all the benefits accreditation provide have proven too tempting for many students, pushed beyond their natural abilities towards life on easy street. With interest, of course.

The expansion of the GI bill’s most lucrative benefits to non-military students led to an explosion of enrollment at universities and colleges across the country, many of which had to expand their available catalogs of studies to keep pace – and attract new enrollees. This led to further dilution of what made a college degree valuable, which led to greater competition not in the pursuit of excellence or education, but in padding student ranks by any means necessary. Third-party loan agencies were more than happy to issue outrageously generous agreements to otherwise mediocre students, many of whom would have thrived in vocational positions. The cycle continues.

What Grisham does with The Rooster Bar, unfortunately, is to sluice the fundamental responsibilities of this wretched system away from its benefactors – the students taking these students loans. It’s clear that at least two of the protagonists, Mark and Todd, aren’t cut out for the rigors of academia and should’ve never been accepted to the school. Zola, for her part, is presented as the ultimate victim: the daughter of a black Muslim family who, like her white male counterparts, has been misled by unscrupulous loan sharks. It’s one pity party you don’t wanna miss, and you can bet there be some comeuppances for the puppet masters at the ready.

What would a John Grisham book without talking-point bulletins masquerading as dialogue? The Rooster Bar has two competing injustices for readers to commiserate with. The first, of course, being the plight of our hapless law students – and millions just like them – who’ve been conned and suckered into a dubious financial situation by unscrupulous loan sharks working in tandem with for-profit lawyer mills. Grisham has his characters remind us, quite often, that “a million students went into default” last year, surely damning them to financial ruin. Those poor souls – they simply didn’t have a say in the matter!

The second, almost an afterthought (when you think about it), is the sad plight of Zola’s family, and that of millions of ‘immigrants’, being forced to leave their adopted homelands. This sub-story works on two levels, both perfect in the Age of Trump: prejudice towards Muslims as a people and illegal deportations of said Muslims.

As Grisham doesn’t bother to offer any substantive facts or – ironically – legalese – about how such deportations actually work, we’re left with little more than exaggerated malice and to question (once again) the behavior of those subject to deportation. With all due respect, Zola’s parents weren’t actually “immigrants”, at least not in the legal sense. There’s no real talk about why, after spending nearly three decades in the United States and hustling at minimum wage jobs, the family failed to make any real effort to naturalize.

One could suggest Zola’s family feared not just deportation back to Senegal, but having their children separated in the States into foster care. Todd says he’d heard ICE had a policy of not separating families, though. “It may be written down somewhere,” Mark replies, “but it’s not always followed.” If you’re curious to where a law student may have gained such insight, he lets us know. “I read an article last night…”

Ever the one to explain things, Mark informs them about the abysmal state of ICE detention centers in the US. “Since there is no independent oversight…”, he explains “…detainees are often subjected to abuse, including long-term solitary confinement and inadequate medical care and bad food.” His source? You guessed it: an article in the Post! Why, it’s almost like the author relied exclusively on magazine articles and second-hand information when writing this.

If that dark imagery weren’t enough to hammer home the visual of sanctioned abuse by US government officials, when the trio approach the detention facility holding Zola’s family, Todd remarks how it looks like “one of those old black-and-whites of Auschwitz.” Pretty gross, Grisham.

Perhaps most telling is when Zola pulls out a black hijab just prior to meeting her detained family, telling the boys she’s “supposed to wear this when in the presence of men who are not in my family.” What a good little Muslim, they joke back. Grisham peppers later insight about how Zola’s father reverts to his dominating self when back in Senegal; if only Muslim submission weren’t so controversial and the plight of ‘immigrants’ so endearing, perhaps we’d have gotten a more substantial story.

I’m curious if Grisham feels saddling Zola with an unfortunate family situation somehow inoculates her from criticism and her role in the overall fake-lawyer scam. Because it doesn’t. Her behavior is just as reckless as the boys, to say nothing about what having the only legal American citizen in her family commit multiple felonies while said family is being deported speaks volumes to her character, and lack of judgement.

Grisham is wise not to wholly indict a system that’s most certainly immoral, however. His premise is tried and tested: lovable rogues gaming the system to seek justice denied to them, righting wrongs and all that jazz. Only Mark, Todd, and Zola aren’t lovable rogues, nor are they sympathetic heroes. They’re horrible human beings, attempting to justify their own terrible choices by pointing elsewhere – shifting blame to anyone but themselves. OK, they eventually accept some blame, but acknowledging one’s own stupidity without any character growth is a fairly low bar, wouldn’t you say?

And yet…despite all of the above, and much more I’ve neglected to mention, I still enjoyed The Rooster Bar for what it does present, which is a cautionary tale of what not to do.  I’ll admit there’s a perverse pleasure watching our protagonists’ grand scheme unravel by their own idiocy, with one neglected detail after the other falling like dominoes. Any resolution or ‘happy’ outcome seems more obligatory than rational; Grisham readers need their safe spaces, after all, and he’s more than happy to oblige. I’m always amazed at just how easily some people fall for this sort of propaganda, and how just as easily others willingly lap it up. If you’re the type who’s easily swayed by this paperthin argument, bon appetite.

The Rooster Bar offers longtime John Grisham fans nearly everything they’d missed in his last major work, Camino Island, for better or worse. It’s either a David vs. Goliath tale of financial retribution or a cautionary tale of corrupt knuckleheads looking to evade responsibility by any means necessary. Maybe a little of both. There will be some unwilling to look past its shameless attempt at justifying such brazen self-victimization by an unlikable trio of charlatans, none of which deserve our sympathy or admiration. I had fun watching the chaos unfold, and suspect even Grisham isn’t as sympathetic as he lets on. Call me a priss, but I hope they get caught and tossed in the slammer. Now that would be justice.

About the Author: Trent McGee