Grisham's Homily

Reading between the lines.
Feb. 7 1998 3:30 AM

Grisham's Homily

Why an airport-bookstore-thriller writer is actually America's leading moralist.

The Street Lawyer
By John Grisham
Doubleday; 348 pages; $27.95

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It is hard to understand how Grisham pulls this off. His books aren't being sold exclusively to residents of Manhattan's Upper West Side. He is preaching to the kinds of middle Americans that liberal activists long ago gave up for dead. But he manages to present politically unpalatable ideas with grace and understatement. The Street Lawyer avoids the kind of self-righteousness that usually accompanies homeless activism. Grisham is content with the simple and compelling observation that as a society we fail to treat the homeless with the dignity they deserve.

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At one point, early in the book, an entire family of five whom Brock had befriended dies on a bitter winter night, after being turfed out of their apartment. He visits their bodies in the morgue, pulling back the sheet: "I closed my eyes," Brock says, "and said a short prayer, one of mercy and forgiveness. Don't let it happen again, the Lord said to me." That moment--that prayer--sounds like a cliché. But a cliché is something said over and over again. And these are things that, in this day and age, are rarely said at all.

Malcolm Gladwell is a staff writer at The New Yorker.

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