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Book Review

A Grisham Tale Beyond Courtroom

THE TESTAMENT; by John Grisham; Doubleday $27.95, 435 pages

March 09, 1999|MICHAEL HARRIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The big news for John Grisham fans is that his 10th novel--already a No. 1 national bestseller--doesn't confine itself to courtrooms and law offices. But much of it does concern a legal brouhaha--over the will left by Troy Phelan, an eccentric, reclusive Virginia tycoon who somewhat resembles Howard Hughes.

Phelan, estranged from his three ex-wives and six children, summons them for the reading of a testament that he hints will make them all rich. He easily convinces the psychiatrists they have hired that he is of sound mind. Then, when they have left, he tears up the will, scribbles another that leaves his entire $11-billion estate to a seventh, out-of-wedlock child nobody knows about, and jumps out of a 14th-story window.

The heir, Rachel Lane, is a missionary to indigenous tribes somewhere deep in the Pantanal, a Colorado-sized wetland in Brazil near the Bolivian border. Phelan's law firm needs to find her because the outraged former heirs and their lawyers are contesting the will. The search is assigned to Nate O'Riley, a hotshot malpractice litigator fallen on hard times: divorce, bankruptcy and a fourth stretch of drug-and-alcohol detox.

The first two chapters, in which Phelan details with relish the failings of his spoiled, greedy, immature offspring and their mothers, are good, dirty fun. Later, the shenanigans of their lawyers are satirized just as broadly. Grisham shows a new lightness of touch here; the parts of "The Testament" that deal with the legal profession fairly snap along.

But it also seems to be a sign that Grisham has grown bored with the kinds of characters and issues that have been his meal tickets. He's trying to explore new territory--so he sends O'Riley, in the company of likable Brazilian guides named Jevy and Welly, into the Pantanal.

Waiting for him are uncharted swamps, sudden storms, a plane crash, anacondas, alligators, unreliable small-boat engines, dengue fever and suspicious natives. Grisham, who says he trekked through the Pantanal twice, can't help but make this part of the story exciting. With his workmanlike prose, he outlines a classic adventure--though if we think of what Joseph Conrad, Graham Greene or Gabriel Garcia Marquez would have done with it, we realize that it's still only an outline.

Lane, who has lived a saintly life among the Ipica tribe, healing the sick and spreading the Gospel, wants no part of Phelan's money. She won't even sign forms acknowledging her inheritance--a major blow to Phelan's colleagues in Washington, D.C., fighting off human piranhas.

The Brazilian side of the novel--the spiritual and ecological side--is earnest and simple-minded, in contrast with the American side's savvy cynicism. Grisham, for example, sees no possible harm in Lane's ministry among people who never asked her to come, and no good in native shamans' opposition to her.

O'Riley, inspired by Lane, finds God and changes his life; nothing is harder for a novelist to make real to readers who haven't undergone such a conversion themselves. A language for it hardly exists, between the extremes of esoteric mumbo-jumbo and Sunday-school pieties. Grisham, still exploring, settles for the latter.

O'Riley staggers from his near-deathbed in a Brazilian hospital to the nearest church, confessing "every weakness and flaw and affliction and evil that plagued him. . . . 'I'm sorry,' he whispered to God. 'Please help me.' As quickly as the fever had left his body, he felt the baggage leave his soul."

While reading "The Testament," I had an unsettling experience of my own: I happened to be reading two other novels, each at least as deserving of a few hours of your time as Grisham's, but both in danger of being overlooked for lack of promotional muscle. It wouldn't hurt to mention them here.

"The Cracked Earth" by John Shannon; Berkley Prime Crime paperback; 275 pages, $5.99; and "Home and Away" by Joanne Meschery (1994); reissued in paperback by University of California Press; 284 pages, $12.50.

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