The Laws of Our Fathers, by Scott Turow (Farrar Straus & Giroux )

One of my favorite authors once wrote that everybody thinks theirs is a time of great change and that, occasionally, they’re right. Few would argue that profound changes were wrought in this country during the period spanning roughly 1966-1972. (The stock phrase is that this was the period during which America lost her innocence, but anyone who attempts to defend the position that America was innocent prior to this period is just not thinking hard enough.) Precipitated by the war in Vietnam, this was the era that saw massive distrust of government pervade the land, an explosion in the use of recreational pharmaceuticals by middle class white people, a police riot in Chicago, the assassination of two beloved and highly regarded leaders, a president resigning in disgrace and a populace no longer willing to march blithely off to war because somebody "up there" tells them to (although this observation fails when you get to the Gulf War).

Scott Turow’s story has its genesis in that intense and confounding era, described in flashbacks in the context of a present day murder trial. As is his style, Turow resurrects a minor character from a previous novel and promotes her to center stage. In this case it is Sonia "Sonny" Klonski, a Kindle County judge. The cast of characters would be confusing if listed here but, in the book, all is clear. On trial for arranging the murder of his mother is the son of a former campus radical who was part of Judge Klonski’s close-knit group of friends during her college years. The defense attorney is another of that group, as is one of the reporters covering the trial. The prosecutor is another holdover from previous books, this time even more of a whiny, insecure loser who Peter-principled his way to his level of marginal competence.

The story is told primarily from two first-person perspectives, those of Judge Klonsi and the reporter, Seth, who take turns and bounce between the past and the present. Klonski seems to possess the deepest insights into the present day happenings of the trial, while Seth is at his best telling us of bygone times. The novel would have been much richer had we been afforded a more extensive glimpse into Klonski’s feelings about her college days, especially as concerned her troubled relationship with Seth. Interestingly, Klonski shows us very little of her true emotional side regardless of the time period under discussion.

The best part of the book is Turow’s willingness to be discursive and not so overly preoccupied with advancing the plot that he cannot provide us with his views about what we now refer to, incorrectly, as "the 60s." The actual historical events are glossed over lightly in favor of what heretofore has been somewhat lacking in the literature of that time except in self-indulgent memoirs and autobiographies, namely the thoughts and feelings of its participants. The characters evaluate themselves in an historical and political context, treating their lives as inextricably intertwined with their times. Being almost exactly the same age as these players, and having been in college the same time as they, I take some issue with how Turow paints them. He takes his characters with extreme seriousness, as they seem to take themselves. Their self-reflections are penetrating and articulate, adopting a very sober and analytical tone, even when describing their emotional pain. Turow seems to respect them a great deal, even though my recollections involve a lot more frivolity and self-importance among those campus radicals who managed to make themselves quite influential. With rare exceptions such as Mark Rudd or Mario Savio, most of these were local heroes whose spheres of influence were confined largely to within a mile of the student union. All felt that their phones were being tapped and that surveillance teams were following their every movement, when in fact few in law enforcement cared about them at all.

From this intriguing amalgam of reminiscence and procedure, a picture begins to emerge that is more of an overall emotional pattern than a series of discrete events that could be listed on a piece of paper. The central relationship of the book, that between Judge Klonski and Seth, turns out to be barely related to the front story of the murder trial, except insofar as it provides a convenient mechanism for laying out the historical perspective, which, as it also turns out, doesn’t bare much relationship to present-day circumstances either. So if you happen to enjoy beautifully written and deeply insightful excursions, as I do, The Laws of our Fathers may be for you. On the other hand, if you like to have the plot constantly advanced and are put off by frequent and lengthy side trips, you’re not likely to make it through the first few chapters.

This probably accounts for the strangely mixed reviews the novel has received from mainstream critics, ranging from disappointed condemnation to rapturous praise. In fact, this seemingly arbitrary critical ambivalence is the best proof I’ve come across recently for the thesis advanced in the essay, "Using Critics" (click to read it). In short, just as this book appealed to some reviewers and not others, it will appeal to some general readers and leave others cold. It’s all a matter of taste, and any critic who doesn’t make evident his or her particular literary hot and cold buttons does a great disservice even discussing this book.

As expected, the trial itself contains some skillful twists and turns. Refreshingly, Turow paints them slowly, increasing their impact. The denouement, which a less talented author might have dispatched within just a few pages, occupies many chapters, end emerges through the involved characters. I had some ambivalence about the trial ending with a whimper rather than a bang, Klonski (and Turow?) essentially taking the easy way out, somewhat like Arthur Hailey ending Hotel by having all his main characters die in a falling elevator before anything is resolved. But, as it turns out, justice was done after all, sort of, maybe, however circuitously that may have occurred. The endpoint of Klonski’s and Seth’s relationship also strikes a somewhat discordant note, Seth’s sensitivity seeming to take a willing back seat to Klonski’s more calculating motive. One gets the impression, knowing Seth as well as we have come to, that he would have been more self-possessed about it, the natural move being for him to simply leave, however momentarily painful that might have been.

But I quibble — treat this book as more of an epic tale than a mystery story and you might find yourself falling into its world and being absorbed to your delight. It is certainly worth the effort to give it a go.

-Lee Gruenfeld

 

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