In Gray Mountain, Grisham turns his spotlight on Big Coal in Appalachia, where strip-mining has denuded the majestic mountains in the name of energy. Not to be confused with the Big Money of politics or Big Oil that has decimated the world’s most pristine environments, Big Coal is a homegrown nightmare. It is cousin to the greed of corporate industry that has consumed American enterprise, the church where all such entities worship located on Wall Street. The factories produce beneficial legislation in Washington, DC, in the United States Congress, where lobbies hum with opportunities to corrupt what was meant to be a democratic institution. The beauty of trickle-down economics is the toll it takes on those left to fashion often uninhabitable lives from the remnants of corporate-financed destruction.
So that’s the back story. The actual tale is salted with individuals meant to give perspective to a glum situation and inform readers of a growing menace. Unfortunately, most of the damage is already done, the laws institutionalized and the outraged voices of a few too little and too late to make an impact. Still, let’s humor Grisham, read about the tragic circumstances of these folks and vow to do better, even make an effort to vote. (It should be noted, however, that Grisham’s former passion for detailed characterization has been lost along the way—or is the result of an avalanche of documentation to make a case that’s already lost. But we’ll give it a try.)
Ivy League-educated Samantha Kofer applies to the Mountain Legal Aid Clinic in Brady, Virginia. She is a casualty of the economic collapse of 2008, an attorney who has never seen the inside of a courtroom (by choice), who toils too many hours with no social life, her Holy Grail a partnership and permanent job security. Faced with unemployment after the fiasco in 2008, Kofer accepts the conditions of a year-long furlough arrangement made by her company, with an opportunity to return after a year of volunteer work. Meanwhile, she travels to Brady, for a dose of real life.
At the Mountain Legal Aid Clinic, she is introduced to the ugly realities of Big Coal and the miserable, hardscrabble existences of the lowest of the 99 percent. These are desperate people in dire straits with no voice, their lives blighted either by the fist of Big Coal or the brisk meth trade that fills the financial gaps for those without opportunities. This is the perfect scenario for a Grisham expose, though hardly groundbreaking, just made more intimate by the pending lawsuit by Donovan Gray. He is waging a one-man crusade against the company that bought his grandfather’s mountain, Gray Mountain, from his father after the old man’s death. Donovan hopes to make an example of Gray Mountain and the utter ecological destruction of strip-mining. Things have gotten so bad that Donovan travels with a gun, glibly proclaiming: “I’m thirty-eight years old and I’ll die young.” A prophetic statement, as it turns out.
As Samantha learns the ropes, practicing real law in the courtroom, she is surrounded by well-meaning coworkers in an all-female office, a touch that seems superfluous at best. Samantha is no bootstrap lawyer, her mother firmly ensconced in the DC hierarchy and her father a former glory hound who gained a reputation in high-profile cases until his hubris landed him in jail. Back in DC, he has found a new, equally lucrative niche despite his disbarment. Both of Sam’s parents, divorced for many years, worry about their daughter’s safety in her new job.
As expected, the message is delivered in a Grisham good-guys/bad-guys scenario with little room for misinterpretation. Samantha finds her true calling in the hills of embattled Appalachia, the law now more than an intellectual exercise where lives are at stake at the game is for keeps. Yeah!