John Grisham’s compelling tale of three indebted law students
“The Rooster Bar” by John Grisham; Doubleday (368 pages, $28.95)
“The Law School Scam,” a 2014 investigative article in The Atlantic, was the inspiration for John Grisham’s latest novel, “The Rooster Bar.” Grisham’s tale is a thoroughly engaging, seriocomic caper that satirizes and exposes unsavory for-profit law schools, along with banks that exploit students with loans they’ll never be able to pay off, unfair United States immigration policies — and, for that matter, the entire legal profession in this country.
Last year’s Trump University fraud case settlement would seem to have played a part in Grisham’s plot as well.
In the novel, Mark Frazier, Todd Lucero and Zola Maal are third-year law students in D.C., enrolled in a bottom-of-the-line, for-profit institution called Foggy Bottom Law School.
The job market is dismal, even if in the unlikely event that they manage to pass the bar exam after graduation — an unlikely prospect in any case, since the pass rate for Foggy Bottom graduates is a pathetic 56 percent.
Each of the three is drowning in student debt, which it would seem will be impossible to ever pay off. Mark owes $266,000; Todd, $195,000; Zola, $191,000. Their law school had enticed them to take out huge federally backed loans — from an equally disreputable bank that offered easy money with the false prospect that they would get high-paying jobs immediately upon being graduated and passing the bar. By the start of their final semester, they have all learned that their employment prospects are slim and bleak, and their chances of paying off their loans are essentially nonexistent.
Zola is a black Muslim-American woman of Senegalese descent, born in the United States and therefore a citizen. Her parents and younger brother, however, are in the country illegally, and are vulnerable to raids by the dreaded Immigration and Customs Enforcement — ICE. Zola is involved with a handsome, athletic WASP law student, Gordon (“Gordy”) Tanner, who happens to be bipolar. He also happens to be engaged to a wealthy white girl from his hometown.
In one of his manic moments, Gordon exhibits to Zola and her friends an expose of the billionaire investment crook, Hinds Rackley, who owns and controls — off the books — not just the law school but the banks that provide student loans. Gordy leaves his apartment in a drunken stupor and gets arrested for DUI. When Mark and Todd go to court to pay his bail, they encounter Darrell Cromley, a lawyer soliciting vulnerable defendants with promises of helping them avoid jail time. No one seems to question the credentials of Cromley or any of the other lawyers on the scene.
The next day, Gordy kills himself by jumping off the Arlington Memorial Bridge. To honor Gordy in his attempt to expose Rackley — and to get themselves out of their mountains of debt — Mark, Todd and Zola team up to invent new identities and a nonexistent law firm of their own. According to some studies, Unauthorized Practice of Law (UPL) is a felony, but it’s usually treated lightly, and seldom punished by real jail time. So, all bets are off.
This is the setup for Grisham’s wild, hard-to-put-down romp. It’s no surprise that the author’s writing should be brilliant, nor that his far-fetched plot is compelling from chapter to chapter. It appears light and funny, but his characters’ travails reflect those of a significant number of real-life American millennials duped by unscrupulous banks and businesses.
Add to this the somber depiction of the travails encountered by earnest immigrants facing deportation, and the author’s comedic pen takes on a darker color.
The brief scenes in which Zola’s family languish in a detention facility (read: jail) are harrowing. So is the abuse they receive on arriving in Senegal, although the adventures of Zola and her American cohorts alleviate the horror, when the Americans travel to Africa to rescue the unfortunate deportees.
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