Reading John Grisham’s excellent Gray Mountain reminded me that we live in an era of ‘Boulevard’ fiction which, in my opinion, only loosely relates to literature. Even a cursory glance at what sells best suffices to understand that romance – tons of it – along with mediocre thrillers and relationship stories make a buck. The true literature that reflects, as a merciless mirror, the painful issues of contemporary life, as it had done in preceding centuries, rarely finds its way to a big publisher. The publishing industry perceives such books as having little commercial value. It took the greatness of John Grisham to fill up the gap and write a novel in the spirit of the most memorable creations of the past, in which a personal drama is a part of social upheaval or reflection of society’s ills.
I doubt that Gray Mountain would have been accepted by a publisher if it had been submitted by an author of a lesser stature than John Grisham. This is not to say it does not have the same entertaining quality as his previous books. Far from it: it has Grisham’s familiar suspense and intensity of actions and emotions. But for good measure, it addresses serious social and environmental problems, which American fiction has too little chance to expose. These problems are much larger then most of us perceive, but the majority of the middle class prefers to look the other way. We do not want anything serious. We want to have fun. After all, literature is for entertainment and amusement, isn’t it?
The beginning of the novel gives no indication of the unfolding drama. Samantha, a law school graduate employed by a prestigious law firm, is laid off when the recession of 2008 struck. Samantha is close to depression. The only option available for her is the company’s offer to find an intern position – a non-paid job – somewhere for a year, this way keeping her health insurance and other benefits. If the company’s fortunes improved, she might be hired back.
But even a non-paying job is hard to find at a time when all law firms were getting rid of their staff in a desperate attempt to survive. There is one offer though, far away from her beloved New York, in a small rural town in Virginia. This is a coal mining area, one of the dirtiest places in the country. The day she takes the job the real drama begins to unfold.
There she discovers what ‘strip mining’ is. The coal mining companies blast the top of a mountain, thus getting access to the upper coal layer in an open pit. The consequences are disastrous: black lung disease for workers, massive contamination of water and plants, and miserable lives for families living on low wages. Litigation against the mining companies is useless: the power of their money and political influence is overwhelming.
Samantha, initially against her wishes, becomes involved in the local legal matters, and in the fierce fight of right against wrong. Eventually her understanding of values undergoes a dramatic transformation. A girl of the big city, for whom luxuries and pleasures were the first priority, she becomes a passionate defender of the weak and the defenceless, and gets involved in complicated, often dangerous battles against the merciless Goliath.
Reading the book we get a wealth of information about the way law firms work, the intricacies and hurdles of the law profession, the complexity of discovery and investigative work. In Gray Mountain, all of these fascinate no less than in other Grisham novels.
This novel is of particular interest to a cerebral reader. There is a lot to be learned from it: the devastation from coal mining production, life in rural America, the dangers and rewards of the legal profession in such places, damage to the environment and people’s health from open mining technology, and much more.