"You don't do it for the money. You do it for your soul," says Michael Brock, John Grisham's latest protagonist in The Street Lawyer (106). Michael asserts that he becomes a lawyer for the homeless, rejecting a high income, for his soul. Indeed this Grisham novel stands out from the rest by touching such a serious issue as homelessness and by trying to give a struggling American minority a voice. The novel also, like one of Grisham's after it, The Testament, depicts a successful lawyer who turns away from his money making and the so-called "American dream" in order to give to the needy. In the process, he finds his calling and feels completely gratified by his transformation from a rich corporate lawyer to a poor street lawyer. By comparing this novel to Grisham's other successes and by examining his use of Christian imagery, specifically the conversion theme, we can understand Grisham's tendency to produce works of not only social but also spiritual consciousness. Although the success of Grisham's book was largely determined by his notable reputation from his previous bestsellers, the popularity of The Street Lawyer revolves around its heartbreaking portrayal of the homeless and goes against the grain by critiquing the "American dream;" thus it touches the hearts of American readers through its spiritual message and, much like the sad stories on the evening news, may cause them to feel that they have somehow done their part in helping the homeless simply by reading the book.
The Street Lawyer is only one of Grisham's many bestsellers that tackles and dramatizes serious social issues, proving that Grisham's social agenda strikes a chord with not only Americans, but also people worldwide because the issue is brought to the level of their understanding. Firstly Grisham presents such serious issues as racial prejudice, corporate corruption, rape and domestic violence in a manner that is not only dramatic but also accessible to the general public. Grisham does not write in wordy, elevated prose. It is simple and accessible to anyone who has a high school education. He writes in a straightforward manner, even when writing about the most serious of issues. For example, in The Street Lawyer, Grisham describes the condition of homelessness in a clear, concise manner by saying, "There were different levels of homelessness, distinct rungs on the socioeconomic ladder. At one table, six men ate?they were reasonably well dressed" (209). Grisham explains the different "classes" that comprise homeless status, in simple prose with vivid illustrations. He goes on to describe their clothes, thus providing a visual image for the readers to grasp.
Furthermore Grisham's past novels also dramatize issues in a manner that makes them interesting to readers and clearly conveys the risks and emotions of the people at stake. For instance in A Time to Kill, Grisham's writing paints in vivid color, the feelings and emotions connected with racism in the South, as well as giving readers a glimpse into the workings of a courtroom trial. Grisham revolves the story around a white lawyer, who in many ways serves as the character for the readers to identify with. He is aware of the racial prejudice in the South, yet he has never experienced it firsthand. The same may be said of Michael in The Street Lawyer. Before being taken hostage by a homeless man in his law firm, Michael knows nothing about homelessness. The reader learns about the issue at the same time as Michael. Thus Grisham presents accessible characters and prose to the readers in order for them to fully capture the essence of the serious issues that he dramatizes.
In addition, Grisham presents spiritual and moral connotations throughout his novels, but particularly in The Street Lawyer, which touches the spiritual side of readers and may reach a Christian audience. This display of Christian religion may attract those who are Christians or who are interested in Christian themes. Grisham writes to a very much Westernized, Christianized audience by focusing on a white, upper-middle class protagonist who for the first time is confronted with the issues of the lower classes. Furthermore Michael often sees the issues in light of Christian ideas and he himself undergoes a dramatic conversion in the course of the novel.
Grisham transforms Michael from a money-laden sinner to a Christian saint in the course of only thirty days through the use of DeVon Hardy as the figure of the Holy Spirit and child Ontario Burton as a Christ-figure. Firstly, at the outset of the novel, Michael's firm is taken hostage by a threatening homeless man who makes all of the lawyers aware of their "sins." Grisham shows Providence already at work by providing a circumstance in Michael's life in which he must evaluate himself in relation to God and others. The homeless man acts as the illumination of the Holy Spirit. He points out to each of the men how they have greedily hoarded their high incomes, without giving anything away to the ones who need it most, namely the homeless. However, none of the men except for Michael feel any sort of conviction. Michael says, "I suddenly realized the weight of my sin" (16). In the face of his sins, Michael begins to feel remorse. He is called out from the rest of the men. Thus presenting the Scriptural ideal from Matthew 20:16 that "Many are called but few are chosen." Hardy begins Michael's transformation to a sanctified street lawyer. However, it is not until he begins working with the homeless and meets the Burtons that his transformation is completed. While at a shelter, Michael meets a homeless family, a single mother who has four small children and lives with them in a car. One of her sons, Ontario, serves as the Christ-figure of the novel and ultimately leads Michael to complete conversion. At the shelter Michael falls in love with Ontario, but soon after the whole family dies due to asphyxiation from the tailpipe of the car that they live in. They die as innocents in a harsh world. In addition, Ontario, a child of four, represents to Michael all things that are pure and cause him to desire to devote his life to the homeless. For example, Michael sees Ontario's body in the mortuary, "When Bill yanked the sheets back and I saw my little pal Ontario finally at peace. It was then and there, at that moment, in the city morgue that I became someone else" (126). Michael is completely transformed by the sacrifice of an innocent child in a corrupt, greedy world. Thus Michael's conversion to a street lawyer represents an individual's conversion to Christianity.
Grisham's next novel is The Testament, a novel that also presents spiritual overtones and challenges the "American dream," thus proving Grisham's acknowledged success with the first attempt and his understanding that the Christian public may welcome a similar novel. For example, the novel is a story of a washed up corporate litigator, Nate O'Riley, who gives up any hope of returning to a thriving law profession to live as a missionary in South America. The lawyer converts to devout Christianity and to a life of Christian service in a matter of days. O'Reilly's conversion occurs after he meets Rachel Lane, a missionary doctor, who challenges his faith in God. Through her character Grisham presents the idea of human beings as instruments in God's conversion process. Furthermore O'Reily contracts a severe case of Dengue fever, which leaves him immobile and hospitalized for days. It is in this state that O'Reily ponders over the condition of his soul and his life's mission, showing how suffering often touches the core of the human will, drawing them closer to God. Thus Grisham dramatizes the Christian conversion.
Furthermore in The Street Lawyer Michael not only undergoes a Christian-like conversion he converts from a participant in the "American dream" to a man who despises and rejects it, adding weight to Grisham's moralistic story and thus attracting those who have strong inclinations against the idea of American wealth. For example, before Michael becomes a street lawyer, as a successful corporate lawyer, he is on his way to achieving the American dream of status and wealth. When Mordecai meets Michael he comments on the status that he and his wife hold saying, "You'll be a partner in a big firm, she'll be a surgeon. Another American dream" (74). However, Michael rejects this American dream of a powerful, moneymaking marriage and lifestyle. Furthermore he rejects this dream despite constant pressure from those around him who are caught up in the capitalist society. For instance, his brother says to him, "You're a dumb-ass?you were on the fast track for a partnership. You'd be making a million bucks a year at the age of thirty-five" (276). Grisham portrays the other characters in middle-class or upper class positions as obsessed with making more and more money. But in the face of homelessness, Michael sees the absurdity and wastefulness of excessive wealth. He says, "I've lost my love for money" (276). And in fact, Michael has. He sees the hardships of those who live on the street, especially the homeless children, and feels that he has no right to live with an abundance of material goods. In fact, soon after becoming a street lawyer, Michael starts sleeping on the floor of a DC apartment because he cannot afford a bed. Although Michael is not homeless, he experiences a slight part of poverty for himself. Thus Grisham appeals to readers who are unconvinced by our capitalist society and who advocate a simple lifestyle. These readers may also be the Christians that he appeals to through his theme of conversion because one of the basic precepts of Christianity said by Jesus Christ is "Take up your cross and carry me" (Mark 10:21). Devoted Christians believe in a life of service and goodwill. Furthermore, they believe that their treasures are stored in heaven, not in material possessions on earth so many of them would indeed be opposed to the "American dream."
In return for sacrificing the "American dream" for a life of service to others, Michael experiences great emotional satisfaction, perhaps portraying Grisham's satisfaction in writing this novel and his desire for readers to be entranced by his message. For example, Grisham clearly sets up the "good guys" and the "bad guys" in this novel. The corporate lawyers, the rich people, are the bad guys. They are greedy and corrupt and show no desire to help the homeless. However, people like Mordecai, another street lawyer, and Megan, a counselor at a shelter for women, are the good guys. They give up material possessions to help those in need. By becoming a street lawyer, Michael gives up his role as a "bad guy" to become a "good guy." This may also strongly influence readers who feel that the corporate world is corrupt and that they want to be a part of the "good guys" who fight against corruption. Furthermore by reading the novel they may themselves feel like they are good. They are reading the novel in the shoes of Michael. Michael experiences extreme satisfaction in his role as a street lawyer and says, "You don't do it for the money. You do it for your soul" (106). He finds deeper emotional and spiritual meaning in the service of others. In addition Grisham may be able to make the same statement about the book. As a best-selling author who possesses a vast amount of wealth, perhaps he writes this book for his soul, hoping that he will be a voice for the homeless. The book serves as his mode of altruism and may also serve as a feel-good read that touches the souls of readers.
This book's portrayal of the homeless is influenced by poverty rates in America during the twentieth century, and furthermore Grisham's story may touch the souls of readers because of its stark reality. According to the US Bureau of the Census 35, 574 people lived in poverty in America in 1997, the year before the publication of this book. In 1998, the year of its publication, 34, 476 people lived in poverty. The subject of this story is real in America. Thousands of people live in absolute poverty everyday. Thus Grisham is portraying the opposite side of the "American dream," a goal that is unattainable to many Americans. Thus people identify with the inability to arrive at this dream. Even if they are not poor, working class and middle class people identify with the reality of the economic struggle in America. The "American dream" seems to many an unattainable fantasy. Thus Grisham's novel is appealing because it reinforces the reality that in America few people are able to live up to this dream.
The final possibility for the success of The Street Lawyer is that the book may cause individuals to feel that they have somehow helped with the issue of homelessness simply by reading the book. For instance, individuals may feel like they know all about African wildlife just because they watched a documentary on it. In addition, a sad story on the evening news about children who live in an Indian orphanage may cause viewers to feel that they have been to that orphanage, that they have helped the children. Works of the media or of art often transport us to various locales and make us feel the reality of them. Grisham's stories of the homeless within the novel are much like the stories on the evening news that people watch from a distance, but then feel that they have somehow bettered the situation by being informed of it. For instance, the heartbreaking story of the Burton family dying in their car could come across the news on any given day because of its great sadness and tragedy. The readers are able to follow and live through Michael as he transforms to a street lawyer and tends to the problems of the homeless. The readers are with Michael as the sheets are pulled back on Ontario's dead body in the morgue and as he drives Ruby, a drug addict, to motels in order to isolate her from the drugs. In many ways readers may feel that they are part of these altruistic adventures. They may feel like Michael, a greedy American, transformed by a desire to help others. One may hope that their desire to help the homeless will extend beyond just reading the novel.
Thus the popularity of this novel may be attributed to many factors, including Grishsam's accessible prose and his dramatization of contemporary social issues, its spiritual appeal to moral Christians, its real portrayal of the often unattainable "American dream" and its ability to cause readers to feel that they have helped with the homeless. The Street Lawyer does build off of Grisham's success as an author, but it is unlike his previous novels in that it mainly strives to raise social consciousness about homelessness. Grisham gives the homeless a powerful voice through his best-selling status that many Americans take the time to listen to as they read this book.