Review of The Brethren

I haven’t read a trade paperback book in a very long time, however only two of the five books that I’d purchased with the intent to read while in Colombia came to me in sufficient time before my trip. Because of this, when I finished my last book on Colombia I picked up a copy of The Brethren by John Grisham for no other reason than it was there. The last time that I read a trade paperback that wasn’t a reissued classic was, I think, when I was early in my teenage years. Back then I read a lot of Grisham as well as James Patterson, Steven King and Clive Barker. I’m glad I read this, however, as it was nice to re-encounter the specific style and voice that based on sales has one of the widest audiences.

The novel develops around two separate plots that at converge to create the purportedly dynamic but unpredictable third act tension. I say unpredictable not as Grisham gives anything away, he plays the scenes close to the cuff, but because I’m sure if it’d been any other way then there would have been thought pieces published in some of the literary journals listing examples and posturing about the verisimilitude of the world we now find ourselves in.

The book opens on three imprisoned ex-judges that have been given the collective name of “the Brethren” by the security guards in the minimum-security prison. In this prison they attempt to re-create their former power by acting as Justices of the Court by hearing complaints amongst the inmates. Their judgements are considered final and are always a 2-1 verdict, so that if an inmate corners one of them they can claim they were the one that voted in their favor for security purposes. The Brethren also engage in an elaborate blackmail scheme that preys on wealthy, closeted homosexual men with the help of a drunkard lawyer. Since their job in the minimum security prison only pays cents an hour, this is a good way to save time and put money aside to prepare for their relase.

The second narrative traces the rise of presidential candidate Aaron Lake. Lake is, essentially, a puppet created by CIA director Teddy Maynard to fulfill his desire for increased U.S. military spending to counter a General in Russia that he foresees as rising in power and leading to an existential threat to America. Grisham does not quickly weave these two threads together immediately, thereby leaving the reader to wonder in the opening chapters how and when these two worlds will collide.

This plotting was tight, but the stakes for the characters involved was so low that I had trouble getting too invested in their struggles. Towards the middle and end, when there’s much more intrigue going on, I still never felt that anyone was in “real danger” or that the cause for actions was all that significant. Part of this is because I think Grisham want’s to cynically highlight the false personalities we expect of politicians and the political process – there are certainly a few passages and asides that accomplish this. However this intrusion of social commentary in sparse and comes off in all but a few passages less as insightful critique and more as scathing but essentially fatalistic pessimism.

I found Grisham’s portrayal of characters to be interesting but not altogether impressive. There are some complex figures, such as Justice Hatlee Beech, but even then this former millionaire judge rendered divorced, bankrupt, and friendless after his conviction for vehicular homicide while drunk (two students outside the car and a naked female stranger in his car) doesn’t strike me as well developed. His trauma is less from the acts that took him there and more from his loss of a job that was a well-paying appointment for life, prestige, his wife’s money. Even his children’s lack of contact with him, so as to stay in the good graces of their rich mother, seems to only be an afterthought. Presidential candidate Lake seems and even the CIA director Teddy Maynard also read to me as nearly one-dimensional. Maynard is not evil, but a puppet-master who uses his knowledge and connections to help mold the public will via ad campaigns, illicit contributions, and international intrigue. There is, however, little description on any of this and instead we read of CIA ops going on in the office of a small town lawyer that’s also a drunkard.

I didn’t particularly find the book’s resolution to be all that engaging. Spoiler alert! Even after The Brethren hustle their way out of prison they return to the scam that helped get them out. It’s sensible, as they were able to make a lot of money the first time around, however I find given their recognition of the precariousness of their safety (they’re being constantly watched) that they would be willing to risk this.