Not so l'awful'

Not so l'awful'

Not so l'awful'

Earlier this year, John Grisham announced that his next legal thriller would be about the scams behind many for-profit law schools. But it's a long leap from subject matter to story, and Grisham's newly reanimated storytelling skills are what make The Rooster Bar such a treat.

This novel was prompted by an illuminating essay that condemned student-entrapping practices: The Law-School Scam, by Paul Campos, which ran in The Atlantic in 2014. But how do you translate the ethical and economic issues raised by Campos into the high drama of a swift legal thriller? If you're Grisham, you postulate a David vs Goliath situation and take it from there.

He begins by describing the sleaziest for-profit law school he can imagine. Foggy Bottom Law School advertises the ease with which its happy graduates land high-paying jobs at prestigious firms, but this book's three main characters - Mark, Todd and Zola - are not happy. Halfway through their final year at school, they have wised up to the only real attainment Foggy Bottom has earned them: a mountain of debt.

Grisham demonstrates a Dickensian flair for evocative names. Yes, Foggy Bottom is a real neighbourhood in Washington, D.C., but it's also the perfect name for a school this dismal.

Hinds Rackley is the billionaire who owns the school, and others like it, through shell companies with names like Varanda Capital, Baytrium Group and Lacker Street Trust. He's also a loan shark, with dirty dealing going on at firms including Quinn & Vyrdoliac and Sorvann Lenders.

Gordy, a friend of the three law students, has pasted all these company names, plus pictures and connecting lines, on a board in his apartment, like any good wild-eyed conspiracy theorist. The monstrousness of what he discovers drives him out of his mind.

Always helpful to his readers, Grisham lays out the basics simply, including this list: "(1) FBLS was a subpar law school that (2) made too many promises, and (3) charged too much money, and (4) encouraged too much debt while (5) admitting a lot of mediocre students who really had no business in law school, and (6) were either not properly prepared for the bar exam or (7) too dumb to pass it."

Once Mark, Todd and Zola have figured this out, they realise that completing their studies is a waste of money and time. So they come up with a rebellious idea: why not start behaving like lawyers before graduation? They've seen low-level members of the profession  hanging around courthouses trying to drum up business; nobody ever asks for proof that these hustlers have passed the bar. So Mark and Todd begin doing that, while Zola gets the ambulance-chasing beat. The Rooster Bar of the title is their local watering hole, above which they keep an apartment/office to use as an address on business cards for their completely bogus firm.

It all goes swimmingly - for a while. Grisham writes in such an inventive spirit that he even includes the three characters' correspondence with the agents assigned to service their school loans. The collection agents also work for Rackley-owned companies, and the tactics Mark, Todd and Zola use to keep them at bay are great fun to follow. Mark goes for sympathy. ("The last thing I want to talk about is repayment. Thanks for your patience. Your friend, Mark.") Todd plays it nasty. ("I can make more money tending bar than you can harassing students.") Zola plays it polite, and has truly extenuating circumstances with which to deal: Her Senegalese parents, who have been U S citizens for more than two decades, are about to be deported. Even so, the lenders' nagging never ends.

About two-thirds of the way through this buoyant, mischievous thriller, the rogue students' own scamming starts to falter. They're in over their heads. They've gone to a terrible school, and their legal training hasn't prepped them for much. They know they're committing a few little felonies but don't quite grasp the magnitude of the trouble they're in. Their gamesmanship skills have to shoot sky-high as they try to stay one step ahead of the forces aligned to nail them.

The Rooster Bar is written with the same verve Grisham brought to this summer's Camino Island; with the same sense that this reliable bestselling author is feeling real pleasure, and not just obligation, in delivering his work. He seems genuinely to like this book's main characters, even if the two men sound very similar and could be mistaken for young boys if it weren't for their perfunctory sexual encounters - with the same woman, Hadley, an ace prosecutor who's young, single and competing with her roommate over how many guys each can sleep with.

As in all of Grisham's best books, the reader of The Rooster Bar gets good company, a vigorous runaround and - unlike those poor benighted suckers at Foggy Bottom - a bit of a legal education.

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