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Remember Jim McGreevey, the governor of New Jersey who had to resign once we all learned that his gay lover was on the state payroll? Really, who could forget. He wrote a book. His ex-wife wrote a book. There was probably a “Law & Order” episode (must have been). And now he’s apparently helped inspire a comic thriller. What begins as tragedy ends as farce. Maybe McGreevey won’t mind too much, given the gentle treatment that closeted gay men receive in Death by Rodrigo, a chuckle-inducing, aggressively colorful, yet surprisingly dark novel by Ron Liebman. The tale told by Liebman, a partner in the D.C. office of Dewey & LeBoeuf, concerns two Camden, N.J., lawyers, Michael “Mickie” Mezzonatti and Salvatore “Junne” Salerno Jr. They are — as Junne, who narrates the story in thick, semi-grammatical New Jersey-ese, is the first to admit — not the brightest guys around. Like I’ve told you before, I’m not one of those guys really gets it. Really understands all the subtleties and complexities of the law. But what do their clients care? A rollcall of Camden’s finest pimps, whores, drug dealers, and all-around scumbags, they know that “book-smart doesn’t always mean actual-smart.” Acquittals come by undermining witness accounts or getting search warrants tossed. And you don’t need a Harvard J.D. to do that. Partnership at a white-shoe firm probably wouldn’t do Mickie and Junne any good in their current dilemma, either. Having sprung a low-level distributor, one Little Hector, they get the call when Little Hector’s boss, Salvadoran drug kingpin Rodrigo Gonzales, sneaks into town for a big meet and gets popped by the police. Thinking with their wallets, they promise to secure bail for Rodrigo. Only the judge, not being brain-dead, sees that Rodrigo isn’t a flight risk — he’s a flight sure thing. Now Rodrigo’s messenger has intimated pretty heavily that if Rodrigo goes down for the count, counsel can write their epitaphs, too. And Mickie and Junne are fresh out of any ideas or beginnings of ideas or twinkles in an idea’s eye. Junne sums up the sitch. We are in the shit. Full fucking stop. Sometimes scary, often lewd, Death by Rodrigo is also amusing and the precise opposite of politically correct. And, yeah, it’s got closeted gay men besides New Jersey’s most famous. Junne is the one with the big secret. Mickie knows. He’s not what you would call fully accepting — he parades his girlfriend’s girlfriends in front of Junne in hopes of “fixing” him — but Junne is still his law partner, his best friend, his beer-drinking, ESPN-watching buddy. The tragic twist is that Junne himself is tormented by his desires. He calls it struggling with his demons and yearns for “normality.” And he never stops worrying that all the cops, lawyers, and assorted lowlifes he works around will find out. (But he never mentions McGreevey, which is odd. How can a closeted gay man in Camden not ponder the ex-governor’s fate? Or, for that matter, the thugs’ counsel of choice not think of Vito Spatafore Sr., the late Sopranos “family” member?) Junne’s sadness brings an unexpected depth to a story whose book jacket boasts a pole dancer working a very large gavel. Indeed, the theme of pathos in mixed-up lives weaves through this mainly humorous tale. Of course, we’ve dabbed a teary eye before for the hooker who dreams of being squired around like a respectable lady. But the divorced, mentally ill, big-firm wash-up struggling to hold it together in his shabby practice elicits fresh pangs of sympathy. And even the coldly murderous career criminal facing life behind concrete walls and barbed wire brings a brief mourning. “Slip, how you doin’?” I say, recognizing his voice, but I already know how he’s doing. “I’m down, Junne,” is all Slippery says. What else is there to say? It’s a terrible thing to be locked up forever, this book points out. (Not wrong or unjust, mind you — see “coldly murderous” — but terrible for a human being nonetheless.) Besides sympathy for the screw-ups who pass through our criminal justice system, Death by Rodrigo also shows real affection for the messiness of criminal law as it’s truly practiced. Mickie and Junne don’t write briefs — not since law school, Junne estimates. For the trickier stuff, they sign their names to documents produced by Professor Mumbles, the former big-firm attorney who’s still good with words on paper. But what they strive to excel at, what they really admire in other lawyers, is jury skills. The sting of the perfect cross. The stratagem that sucks in the young prosecutor. The sweet lawyering that frees some mope too stupid not to glare at the jury box and then fall asleep during his own trial. This is their bottom line: Their lives were no prizes even before the death threat dangled over their heads. They’re as punctilious and above-board as counsel with clients named Little Chip and Slippery Williams and Buffalo Reds can be. But Mickie and Junne cling to one thing: As lawyers we do our job. The rest, well, the rest’s the rest.
Elizabeth Engdahl is the national opinion editor at Legal Times . She can be contacted at [email protected].

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