U of C Law School produces lawyers, eerie legal thriller

By Joseph N. Liss

This is a thriller of a sort, set in 1992 at that strange glassy box next to Burton-Judson known as the Law School. The author, a Law School alum, has conceived a murder tale, which, were it true, would have been the University’s most sordid episode since Leopold and Loeb suffocated a little boy on 50th and Greenwood. The protagonist is Grayson Bullock, a touch unwieldy as fake names go, a Texan just starting at the Law School, dull and sane, easy prey for Aris Byrd, a 3L and sexual velociraptor. You need to sleep with Aris Byrd because she holds a much desired position on the exclusive editorial staff of The Law Review, the periodical from which the Supreme Court likes to choose its clerks. Everyone’s trying to get to the top, held by blueblood Miles Vanderlyden. The associate editor, the mysterious albino Chuck Hellar wants it, Grayson’s friend Lee Gibbs, who has been screwed by a bureaucratic error, wants it, and Grayson himself wants it.

I wonder if this book is an accurate portrayal of how Law School students see things; I would hope not. Grayson’s stranger’s perspective of local color is quite amusing, whether or not it is intentionally so: Grayson’s heart actually pounds with anxiety as he is driven west from Washington Park to the Dan Ryan; a true amateur. God forbid he should ever have to set foot on the 55 bus, let alone the Green Line. Grayson lives in a place called “Presidential Towers,” a 40-story residential high-rise downtown. How he pays for this goes suspiciously without explanation. I can’t quite be sure of the extent to which some things in this book are meant to be parody. In one scene, Grayson, a self-described ardent supporter of Bush, wholeheartedly partakes of the subdued ludicrousness of the Edmund Burke Society as they debate whether or not their loyalty to the GOP can survive Bush’s tax increase. On election day, Aris expresses the only reasonable attitude towards American politics: “Anyway, at about six, we’re going to watch the election returns and barbeque burgers.”

Things improve when editor Miles ends up bludgeoned to death in his office, conveniently for the next in line, Chuck, and for Lee Gibbs. I always admire skillful arrangement of evidence; at its best, The Law Review resembles Dostoevsky’s baroque police investigation in The Brothers Karamazov. Coupled with a subplot involving a sex triangle between Grayson, Aris, and Chuck, The Law Review briefly promises to be exciting. As far as literary virtues, that’s about it. We’re not here for rich characterization: when Grayson is on a plane to Hawaii with Aris he says, “This is loud.” She replies, “Yeah.”

At first the murder is attributed to Lee, who hated Miles, then shifted to that famous figure of Republican mythology, Some-Crack-Addict, an ever-present bogeyman in this book, who, as we all know, loves going into University buildings and assaulting us (it happens no less than three times in the space of two quarters). We later find out (SPOILER ALERT) that Chuck did it. Here’s why: “While Chuck sometimes claims a working class background, his childhood was really much worse. He grew up in the slums south of the Law School, in destitute poverty, beaten daily by the gangs and by his own single mother, who spent most of her time turning tricks to buy drugs. His father was just another john from the north side, some rich college kid who paid double not to have to wear a condom. . . . You can understand why Chuck hated us all so much.”

Oh, we positively gasp as our society slides toward Gomorrah; to think that some poor, twisted Woodlawn upstart spawned of a single mother could so deceive us, the very vanguard of wealth and virtue, and successfully join our ranks! Can anyone take this seriously? Can Chuck’s clichéd background information account for his devious intrigues any more than Beethoven’s similar upbringing accounts for the Last Quartets?

Gaille, in the middle act of the book, holds the virtue of distance; neither coldly detached nor thinking too precisely on the event; his narrator is interested in what he’s telling without groping after the reader’s sympathies. By the end, the merits are overshadowed by our uneasy awareness of Bullock’s and Gaille’s pathological fear of poor people and of the neighborhoods surrounding the University, a fear born either of ignorance or of conservative politics. This is no ideological bashing, I am merely pointing out a deficiency in social consciousness, indispensable in the novel form. Both Gaille and his protagonist should have lived in Hyde Park when they went to school here.