There was not a courtroom to be found in “Camino Island,” the first novel John Grisham published this year. Not one of the main characters in that book was in any life-threatening danger. There was more than a touch of Dashiell Hammett. There was homage paid to the convoluted, amusing caper novel, novels like those of a writer like Donald Westlake (the many Dortmunder adventures, like “The Hot Rock”).
John Grisham was having a bit of fun in that novel. That’s what he’s having in “The Rooster Bar,” too, even as he returns to the courtroom and to his usual plot involving remedying one of society’s problems. That combination of caper and social conscience is in no way a weakness; as a matter of fact, it makes this new novel an absolute page-turner.
Three students find themselves completely disenchanted with the direction their education has taken. They have been enrolled for the past three years in a for-profit law school in Washington, D.C. During those years, they come to realize that the reputation of Foggy Bottom Law School is shaky at best.
Apathetic professors are teaching classes. Advisement is kept to a minimum. Chances of finding jobs are minimal. Chances of being fully prepared for the bar exam are minimal. In fact, the pass rate on that exam for Foggy Bottom students averages 50 percent.
Then, there is the almost quarter-of-a-million-dollar debt most of those students face as soon as they end their schooling.
In addition, Mark Frazier is dealing with family responsibilities at home. Todd Lucero’s parents have gone into debt to help him realize his dream of becoming a lawyer. Zola Maal, whose parents illegally immigrated to the United States from Senegal before she was born, is worried about their imminent deportation.
To make matters even worse, these good friends discover that their law school is one of eight owned by Hinds Rickley, a very shady hedge-fund operator whom a good friend of theirs has dubbed “the Great Satan.” For Rickley just happens to retain controlling interest in Swift Bank, the very bank that specializes in hustling student loans such as theirs.
Personal tragedy enters the lives of the three students. They give up on school and, with too much time on their hands and too much grief to work through, Mark and Todd hit upon a strategy that will surely earn them some easy money: Although they are not licensed to do so, they will become lawyers for anyone who will hire them. They even convince Zola to join the scheme.
They set up their firm on the floors above The Rooster Bar, a favorite hang-out, where Todd and Mark barter tending bar in exchange for lodging. And so they begin haunting hospitals and courtrooms for cash-paying clients.
Unfortunately, there’s one case that blows up in their faces, the case Mark senses from the beginning he should not have taken.
Pretty soon, they are being pursued by the District Bar Council, former landlords anxious about their back rent, an actual lawyer suing them for gross malpractice, the federal government seeking repayment of their student loans, and assorted and very irate former clients.
Yet, even with all that is occupying them, they still find the time to take down Hinds Rickley. It is, after all, a John Grisham novel.
Grisham is back at the legal thriller he has made his reputation on. If it lacks a lot of the earnestness and a lot of the colorful secondary characters of his early novels, “The Rooster Bar” remains a terrific thriller with a dose of playfulness amidst serious social issues. It does not disappoint. It is, in fact, a wholly satisfying way to spend a lazy afternoon.
Steven Whitton is a retired professor of English.