The Associate

Doubleday. 384 pp. $27.95

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Reviewed by Barbara Vancheri

Too strapped to pay for your son or daughter's law school tuition?

Hand him or her The Associate - but first bookmark the pages about the attrition rates of Wall Street rookies, how firms have dress codes for Saturday and Sunday, and how an associate is a rock star because he billed 21 hours in a single day.

Another young lawyer is the first to sneak a sleeping bag into the office, "a new thermally insulated Eddie Bauer special that he claimed he'd owned for years and then taken all over the country," but which obviously had been unrolled for the first time under a desk.

John Grisham's new novel begins with a fictitious sex scandal involving drunken Duquesne University students, involving several fraternity members and a single woman. A cell-phone video of the incident is used to blackmail the book's protagonist, Yale Law Journal editor Kyle McAvoy, into taking a job with the largest law firm in the world in Manhattan. He's being coerced into stealing documents in a case involving the development of an Air Force bomber, with $800 billion at stake.

Kyle is a second-generation lawyer whose father, John, sounds like a cross between Atticus Finch and Ben Matlock. The elder McAvoy called himself a street lawyer who considered the law a calling. He was "an advocate for clients who worked in factories, who got injured or discriminated against, or who ran afoul of the law," Grisham writes.

Nobody pulls the curtain back on the great and powerful Oz - the legal profession - like Grisham. With the exception of a return to the courtroom in 1996 to represent the family of a railroad brakeman killed when pinned between two cars, Grisham devotes most of his time to writing and turns out a book a year.

For Grisham, The Associate represents a return to The Firm, which launched a legal-thriller empire. No Grisham book is a bad read, but I most enjoy the ones that marry entertainment with education about a subject, as with The King of Torts. Either the profession hasn't changed much, he keeps abreast of it, or every attorney with a juicy anecdote knows where to direct it.

Somehow I suspect that a passage about a female attorney - "notorious because she had once required two associates to wait in the delivery room while she was temporarily sidetracked giving birth" - was inspired by a real workaholic.

Having said that, the thriller's criminal underpinnings seem more manufactured and artificial than usual, and the ending is more whimper than bang.

I suspect that if a movie is made out of the novel, as reports back in November indicated (with Shia LaBeouf in the lead), the suspense will be juiced a bit, even though the story already includes a murder.

Lightning and first love don't strike twice, but once again, Grisham allows the reader to identify with the little guy - even if he is a Yalie pulling down $200,000 annually, but wishing he could have settled for the $32,000-a-year gig helping migrant workers.