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ABOVE THE LAW By J.F. Freedman (Dutton; 452 pages; $24.95) Henry James once said that the first-person point of view, when used to narrate long fiction, is nothing short of “barbaric.” Although the remark contains at least a grain of truth, it thankfully did not deter a noted contemporary of James’ from creating one of the most celebrated characters in all fiction — the boy raconteur Huck Finn. In his latest legal thriller, “Above the Law,” best-selling author J.F. Freedman is also bold enough to narrate through the viewpoint of the protagonist. A fair question, then, is whether the novel follows the model of Twain’s masterpiece, using the first-person form to quicken character and deepen thematic meaning, or instead falls into the sort of tasteless crudescence identified by James. The answer, it turns out, is both. “Above the Law” is set in a remote town in Muir County, Calif., where the U.S. government has just botched a raid of major drug traffickers. During the raid, the drug kingpin is arrested and, moments later, mysteriously killed in cold blood. In a rugged, laconic style that at times elevates suspense almost to a form of poetry, Special Prosecutor Luke Garrison narrates the story of his own investigation into the murder, in which corrupt law enforcement is suspected. Having given up the stress of high-profile criminal cases in favor of private practice in San Diego, Luke initially turns down the offer to serve as independent prosecutor, but then changes his mind. A past encounter with two cops-turned-bad, in which Luke shot them to death, thereby saving the lives of a dozen strangers, has left him with recurring nightmares. For some reason he concludes that taking on the Muir County case will help resolve hidden psychological wounds. But the link between the two events is neither self-evident nor clearly explained. Indeed, the account given is brazenly unconvincing — so much so that one suspects either that Freedman has been careless (rather unlikely) or that Luke is purposely hiding information about his motives. The first-person voice in “Above the Law” works subtly, almost subliminally, to draw the reader into a secondary investigation of the prosecutor-narrator’s credibility. The narrator announces, “I’m reliable, you can set your watch by me,” and one is willing, at least at first, to go along with this claim, despite misgivings that may arise from Luke’s rather inflated assessment of his own qualities. After all, he has been involved in famous criminal trials and hailed in the media as a hero who put his life on the line to save others. Yet from time to time, he unwittingly discloses seemingly minor facts that illuminate a different perspective on his character. For example, when Luke finds himself crowded into the cab of a pickup truck with three attractive young women, he portrays himself as immune to any lustful thoughts. Their doting smiles and full-bosomed beauty, he asserts, “meant nothing” to him. He then invites us to admire his stoic self-restraint in response to the advances of Marilyn, the most attractive of the three, making known his steadfast loyalty to his wife, Riva. Such spousal devotion is refreshing, but spoiled somewhat the following morning with a farewell that is unfittingly fond: “One kiss before parting, maybe never to see each other again. It was a good kiss, not the kiss a married man should be having with a beautiful woman half his age. But somehow it didn’t feel bad, or wrong. It felt bonded, the right farewell.” Riva no doubt would have a different take on the moral rectitude that washes over Luke at this moment. Even more incongruous is a private remark Luke makes about his new motorcycle: “your name is Marilyn,” he tells it, “and I am going to ride you hard.” The kiss, the motorcycle fantasy, and other events as the novel progresses are items that will never be shared with the little missis. The prospect that Luke may also be excluding relevant details from his tale cannot be far from the reader’s mind. In this way, Freedman has done a masterful job of introducing elements that are outside the consciousness of the narrator, a major hurdle to the successful use of the first-person point of view. Unlike the omniscient storyteller, the first person is unable to move from one character’s mind to the next, or to report on matters beyond his ken. Freedman uses the narrator’s limitations, especially his pride and moral purblindness, to reveal that, in reality, he falls short of his professed clockwork dependability. He is less forthright, and perhaps less talented as a prosecutor, than he would have his audience believe. At the same time, the author has cultivated enough sympathy for Luke, and enough respect for his good qualities, to prevent us from rejecting his tale as a total ball of yarn. We want Luke to be a hero as badly as Luke would like to convince us that he is one. Luke eventually secures an indictment for the murder of the drug lord, and, as the trial gets under way, the discord between Luke’s self-admiration and evidence of his untrustworthiness comes to a crescendo. Counsel for the defendant, nicknamed John Q, turns to the prosecutor in his opening statement and describes him to the jury as “a hero who single-handedly saved a dozen lives in the desert last year at great risk to his own, a man admired by all in his profession.” The description matches Luke’s narrative. But then John Q slips in an incriminating fact about Luke, relating to a murder case Luke handled as a county prosecutor. Now Luke raises a thunderous objection. Allegations about the prosecutor’s past obviously have no place in the trial. On the other hand, they are germane to the leitmotif concerning Luke’s reliability. Although he has often trumpeted his successes, Luke has never suggested there were any problems during his career as a county prosecutor, which happens to be the subject of one of Freedman’s earlier novels, The Disappearance. Luke seems intent on hiding his history as a prosecutor from both the reader and the jury. In response to John Q’s remark, he jumps to his feet, shouting, “I am not the object of this trial, Your Honor.” But in a sense, he is precisely that, at least to the jury of his readers. The narrator ignores the substance of his adversary’s accusation and launches into a critique of John Q’s strategy, spinning it as “a tacit admission … that [defense counsel] had no confidence in his case,” accusing him of using “smokescreens, and fancy maneuvers to try to confuse the jury.” Ironically, the narrator’s silence on the incident mentioned by John Q might also be taken as a tacit admission of John Q’s allegation, and his comments on the adversary’s strategy are themselves “fancy maneuvers” to divert the reader’s attention from an unflattering history. The first-person viewpoint thus works in the novel to unravel a murder mystery while simultaneously adding paradox and layers of meaning to the plot, and complexity to the protagonist’s character. Unfortunately, the novel also runs afoul of Henry James’ misgivings about this narrative form. While Luke’s terse, staccato manner lends a grainy power to the story, it can also be crude and homely to the point of distraction. Leaving aside the stream of irritating profanity that pervades both narrative and dialogue, Luke’s idioms and inflections are disagreeable in myriad ways. If the narrative voice fails, it is not because it lacks originality; it is rather because the author has allowed the first person form to become abrasive and, yes, barbaric. Luke never describes a meal without also referring to human excrement in the same passage; he is fond of describing himself in crude terms (“When I get an itch, I scratch it”); obscenities proliferate; his diction is saturated with trite phrases and tiresome puns; he even makes slurping sounds while drinking through a straw. All these mannerisms are intended, no doubt, to convince us of the prosecutor’s droll lack of imagination, his down-to-earth, no-nonsense, unselfconscious style. When described by a third person, vulgar character traits can be tolerable, even entertaining. It is quite a different matter, however, to endure such crude habits at close quarters, to sit in the same room with him, as he breathes his story into our ears. It is tempting to defend Luke’s coarseness in the name of realism. But that defense would presuppose that fiction cannot realistically portray ugliness or tediousness without itself becoming ugly or tedious, a notion flatly at odds with literary tradition. Dante’s Inferno, for example, renders the most appalling human conditions in verse of unparalleled beauty. Geoffrey Chaucer was able to describe even gastrointestinal malfunctions in smooth mellifluous couplets. Contemporary artists, including authors of legal thrillers, have also mastered the art of aesthetic realism. David Guterson’s “Snow Falling on Cedars” comes to mind. The novels of John Grisham are a treasure of lessons in how to make authentic dialogue, even among unregenerate thugs, without so much as a cuss or curse. Freedman’s lapses in aesthetic acumen are depressing, given not only his enormous talent in creating high drama and suspense but also his courageous decision to use his gifts to impress upon a restless culture the paramount worth of marital fidelity. Luke Garrison is at his most impressive not when cross-examining hostile witnesses, or even confronting bad guys with a sawed-off shotgun, but when he is resisting temptations to cheat on his wife. In the very heat of seduction, he finds the wisdom to acknowledge that adultery leads to tragedy, and based on such knowledge acts with honor. His understanding of marital fidelity is pure and unqualified, not contingent on “what the meaning of the word is is.” On more than one occasion in the novel the enticement to extramarital sex is fraught with unseen danger. In retrospect, it is by dint of his fidelity that this successful lawyer prevented a much greater calamity than was apparent at the hour of temptation. Luke Garrison is thus a strong anecdote to the metaphysics of James Bond and his progeny, where promiscuous sex is held out as the prerequisite to adventure and success. In the end, it is the hero’s unwavering loyalty to his wife that leaves him secure and peaceful, soaring above his more ordinary peers. On the question of whether Freedman can turn his strong moral vision and prodigious talents into a work of literary art, the jury is still out. Roger Banks is a writer and international trade lawyer in Washington, D.C. His e-mail address is [email protected]

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