When in Doubt, Lie October 24, 1999, Late Edition - Final
By Gary Krist
By Scott Turow.
403 pp. New York:
Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $27.
How can you tell when a lawyer is lying? O.K., O.K., it's the oldest joke in the book. But with Robbie Feaver, the wonderfully complex and charismatic lawyer at the center of Scott Turow's new novel, you don't even have to see his lips move. A failed actor fond of quoting Stanislavsky, Feaver regards all of life as a play, and has no qualms about doing whatever his role requires, be it crying on cue to win a potential client or replacing the trim on his Mercedes so it looks like a pricier model. Naturally, he can provide justifications for his constant falseness: ''It's really chaos and darkness out there, and when we pretend it's not, it's just The Play. We're all onstage. Saying our lines. Playing at whoever we're trying to be at the moment. A lawyer. A spouse.'' But in his more candid moments, he spells it out: ''I lie, O.K.? I lie all the time.'' No wonder he's one of the most successful personal injury litigators in Kindle County.
Sometimes, though, even the most skillful frauds get caught, and that's exactly what sets the plot of ''Personal Injuries'' in motion. The United States Attorney, Stan Sennett, has found out about Feaver's secret bank account, used to pay off judges and other court officers who nudge the occasional lawsuit in his favor. Eager to exploit this discovery as a means of cleaning up the county courts (and of toppling his nemesis, Brendan Tuohey, the enormously influential presiding judge behind the whole racket), Sennett offers Feaver a choice -- either turn confidential informant against his fellow conspirators or else suffer the full weight of a Federal prosecution for his crimes. Left with little alternative, Feaver capitulates, agreeing to continue playing the role he knows best -- his genially corrupt self -- only this time with a bevy of F.B.I. technicians behind him to record every word and act.
For a thriller scenario, this one is not particularly unusual or sensationalistic, but in Turow's hands it doesn't have to be. It's no secret that legal thrillers, like caviar, come in several distinct grades, ranging from the cheap stuff (the kind of novel-product that lacks all nuance but is just salty enough to keep you coming back for more) to beluga. And although the quality of Turow's output has varied, faltering at times when he seemed to mistake lugubriousness for literary seriousness, there's never been any doubt what kind of sturgeon he is. In his five legal thrillers, he has set new standards for the genre, most notably in the depth and subtlety of his characterizations. And Robbie Feaver may be his most inspired creation yet -- a slick, mercurial, bighearted con artist, as flawed yet somehow as noble as those tragic figures he never got to play onstage.
The book finds its heart in the ever-evolving relationship of Feaver and Evon Miller, a female F.B.I. agent assigned to pose as Feaver's new paralegal/paramour. Although Feaver is married to a woman dying of Lou Gehrig's disease -- and is, in his own way, fiercely loyal to her -- he is a notorious womanizer. But in Evon Miller he finds a woman who seems immune to his celebrated charms. Being an undercover agent as well as a closeted lesbian, Miller knows a little something about deception herself. And to watch the two of them gradually probing the multiple veils, curtains and trapdoors of each other's personalities, penetrating a little deeper each time, is to experience the kind of reading pleasure that only the best novelists -- genre or otherwise -- can provide.
My only reservation about the book is minor. As he did in ''Pleading Guilty,'' which was told entirely in the format of a legal memorandum, Turow has chosen a needlessly cumbersome narrative device here, presenting the novel as a first-person account written by George Mason, Feaver's rather sanctimonious defense lawyer. Mason, who actually plays a very small part in the action, tells the story as if he had access to the thoughts and perceptions of everyone involved -- She endured an instant of pain so intense and familiar that it seemed almost a friend,'' he writes of Miller in a typical passage. And although he offers an explanation for his strange omniscience -- Much of Robbie's day-to-day activity was observed only by the agent code-named Evon Miller, and for the sake of a full account, I have freely imagined her perspectives'' -- the device ultimately seems more distracting than anything else.
That kind of technical problem, however, won't mean anything to the vast majority of Turow's readers. Nor should it, since ''Personal Injuries'' is in all other ways an exemplary novel, one that never succumbs to the easy cynicism its subject might suggest. As one character says of pathological deceivers like Feaver, ''There's never a bottom with these people.'' But Robbie Feaver's personality does have a bottom, and Turow's achievement has been to reach it, and to find there not the spineless depravity suggested by all the lawyer jokes, but something that is solid, admirable and -- hard as it may be to believe -- even honorable.