Making a case against the legal system

February 08, 1994|By Michael Anft | Michael Anft,Special to The Sun

It takes its cues from civility's past failures, adds them up and defies the sum as "precedent." Its practitioners, one in every 500 Americans, climb all over each other for business, and call it "clients' rights." Its proliferation has led to a nation of plotting "victims," who air out their dirty linen in the pursuit of what are ironically called "awards . . ."

"It," of course, is what is euphemistically called "The Law," and it's novelist William Gaddis' latest target -- the newest entry in his ongoing American atrocity carnival. (Apparently, the shoot-fish-in-a-barrel booth was already manned.)

Mr. Gaddis, the one-novel-a-decade enigma and National Book Award winner (for "J.R.," in 1975), takes an obvious mark and hits it with all sizes and shapes of buckshot. His understanding of and disdain for the legal industry transcends completeness. It borders on bitter obsession.

Mr. Gaddis' winsome trademarks-- dead-on breakneck dialogue, self-destructing, unself-aware characters, precise satire and formal ambitiousness -- are all here. But they're weighed down by the author's compulsion to eliminate all reasonable doubt as to his main point: The law diminishes the humanity of all who are touched by it.

For sheer weight of argument (and verbiage, at nearly 600 pages), "A Frolic of His Own" is an open-and-shut case -- in this case, not unlike sending an A-bomb after a bothersome fly.

Although the plot's machinations are convoluted, its dynamics are simple enough. Oscar Crease, grandson of a Supreme Court justice and son of a prominent Southern judge, is run over by his own car (a "Sosumi") as he tries to hot-wire it while under the hood.

In a theme that is repeated ad infinitum, Oscar files suit. His stepsister, Christine, and her lawyer husband, Harry, help out with the details while Oscar's gold-digging girlfriend, Lily, obsesses about a lump in her breast.

Meanwhile, Oscar's father, an erudite Yankee outcast amid Southern white trash culture and old-time religion (longtime favorite targets of Mr. Gaddis), is embroiled in a controversy over a boy's dog becoming trapped in a piece of modern sculpture.

At the same time, Harry is the major legal player in a suit brought against Pepsi-Cola by the Episcopal Church, which contends that the defendant appropriated an anagram of the denomination's name to gain favor subliminally with the soda-buying public.

The main plot involves a Civil War-era play that Oscar, a dilettante of a history teacher, writes based on his grandfather's life. Believing that a major Hollywood producer has stolen the play and concocted a major box-office hit around it, Oscar does the American thing, wins on appeal -- and can't even cover his legal costs.

Predictably enough, every main character ends up like those in Norman Jewison's like-minded film, ". . . And Justice For All": broken, a little crazy or dead.

Mr. Gaddis, though, raises the absurdity and ups the metaphoric ante, especially regarding Oscar's play. As the Civil War ravaged the nation then, he seems to be saying, so does the preponderance of civil suits now.

As usual with the supple but involved works of Mr. Gaddis, plot summaries outline themes but can't begin to explain his idiosyncratic process and the secondary themes he almost effortlessly delivers.

"A Frolic of His Own" is liberally laced with cogent dismissals of art theory, tough Freudiani appraisals of family matters, satire on the ubiquity and violence-lust of TV news, thoughtful discussions on the pervasive undercurrent of race and class tensions, and the paradox between the legal industry's de facto cannibalism and the American Bar Association's code of self-preservation.

Although these underpinnings are rendered by a piercing mind, one can't help but wonder if maybe Mr. Gaddis doesn't have too much of a story to tell.

The most minor of subplots are given pages upon pages of dialogue-- good, trademark Gaddis dialogue, to be sure. But even the most die-hard fans (and I include myself among them) will hanker for the relative brevity of 1985's "Carpenter's Gothic," or the quicker-hit sardonicism of the masterful "J.R."

Still, not many other modern novelists can pull off lengthy legal opinions, written sarcastically and in the language of the eagles, as well as Mr. Gaddis can.

Even if reading "A Frolic of His Own" involves a lot of slogging through, few other current commentators can show us more clearly the leading symptom of the disease that threatens to unravel the United States.

It's called money. Mr. Anft is a writer living in Baltimore.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "A Frolic of His Own"

Author: William Gaddis

Publisher: Poseidon

Length, price: 586 pages, $25

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