Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Brazil Nuts

By Debbie Gilbert and Leonard Gill

MARCH 1, 1999: 

The Testament, By John Grisham, Doubleday, 435 pp., $27.95

John Grisham’s novels are usually referred to as “legal thrillers,” but The Testament doesn’t fit that label. While the book has lawyers galore, thrills are hard to come by, and most of those are crammed into the first few chapters. Grisham has an undeniable gift for crafting a slam-bang opener that grabs readers from page one, but he can’t sustain the momentum.

The Testament begins as elderly Troy Phelan, one of the world’s richest men, videotapes the signing of his will. Three ex-wives and six children – money-grubbers all – salivate in anticipation of their inheritance. But at the last minute, Phelan replaces the formal will with a handwritten version, then dives out the window and kills himself, leaving most of his wealth to a seventh, illegitimate child no one knew he had.

As Phelan’s outraged relatives hire teams of lawyers to contest the will, his own attorney Josh Stafford is stuck with trying to find the designated heir, Rachel Lane. All that’s known about her is that she’s a missionary living with an Indian tribe on the remote Brazil-Bolivia border. Somebody’s got to go down there, locate her amid a vast wilderness, tell her what’s happened, and convince her to sign the papers. It’s a difficult, dangerous assignment, and there’s a lot at stake.

So of the 60 lawyers in his firm, whom does Josh choose to send? Nate O’Riley, a suicidal alcoholic who’s been through detox four times and falls off the wagon whenever he’s under stress. The rest of his colleagues are busy, Josh explains, and it would be good for Nate to “get away for awhile.”

This asinine lapse in logic destroys whatever credibility the story might have had. From that point, The Testament turns into a B-movie adventure, filled with every jungle cliché you can imagine. A plane crashes. A boat capsizes. People succumb to snakebite and malaria. You almost expect someone to emerge from the bush and ask, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” And Rachel, of course, turns out to be a saint, a pious physician who has no interest in worldly things, thus she doesn’t want the $11 billion she’s inherited.

The Testament is too hokey and too tediously paced to be enjoyed as a novel, but it does serve as a nice travelogue through the Pantanal, Earth’s largest wetland. Grisham has visited the area twice, and he does a good job of describing both its natural wonders and the environmental problems it faces. Perhaps by popularizing the issue he can motivate people to save the Pantanal, just as his previous book The Street Lawyer raised awareness of homelessness.

But let’s face it – readers don’t turn to Grisham for natural history. They want to be entertained. And this time, he’s let his fans down. – Debbie Gilbert

Slackjaw, By Jim Knipfel, Tarcher/Putnam, 231 pp., $22.95

The chronology may be almost as fuzzy as his declining eyesight, but in 1985, when Jim Knipfel, a philosophy major, jumped from the University of Chicago to the University of Wisconsin, he was exchanging one void for the next and it didn’t stop there.

On and beyond the streets of Madison, in short and very rough order, Knipfel: graduated into the “cheap and useless joys of vandalism” as taught to him by a fellow philosopher named Grinch; cofounded, with said Grinch, a deliberately rotten punk twosome called the Pain Amplifiers; coheaded, again with Grinch, a flyweight anarchist outfit named the Nihilist Workers’ Party; got sidetracked as a grad student at the University of Minnesota; got further sidetracked as a brass-knuckled thug on the streets of Minneapolis; made a bare living as a plasma donor, a porn-shop vendor, a used-book seller, and a museum guard; failed at two messy suicide attempts; developed a relationship with a woman that led to marriage and divorce; developed a taste for cheap wine that led to alcoholism; developed a lesion on the left temporal lobe that led to “rage seizures”; and, at the age of 32 and owing to a genetic defect known as retinitis pigmentosa, went untreatably, irreversibly, and legally blind.

In the middle of much of this and for $35 a week over the course of six years, Knipfel also wrote for Philadelphia’s Welcomat, an alternative to that city’s slicker alternative weekly, City Paper – and to the horror of many of that city’s citizens. The column, called “Slackjaw,” was, in Knipfel’s words, “a parade of the worst humanity had to offer,” an effort “that tried very hard to hurt everyone’s feelings” (including the author’s own), and in its formative stages, was nothing more than a “hackneyed mishmash of obvious stylistic influences and cheap histrionics.” Even so, Knipfel’s slant on sacred cows and view from the underbelly did not go unappreciated, and when Welcomat changed hands, he moved to New York City’s New York Press, where he earned no less notoriety as a writer but a slightly steadier living as that paper’s master of misdirection – its receptionist.

Knipfel’s autobiography, Slackjaw, by his own unsentimental estimation and self-lacerating outlook, is his “stupid little story,” but a dark, fun one to buy into. Read it and discover a writer who could use some help and do with yours. – Leonard Gill

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