Scott Turow's latest presents his own mystery

October 24, 1999|By Craig Nova | By Craig Nova,Special to the Sun

"Personal Injuries," by Scott Turow. Farrar, Strauss & Giroux. 403 pages. $27.

Trying to make sense out of a Scott Turow novel is something like taking the SAT: you know that the people who put the test together really know their stuff, but yet you wish they were doing something different. Or, to put it differently, Turow is such a smart guy and he has so much talent, why doesn't he write the novel we are all waiting for: a dramatic, intense, perfectly legitimate book in which there is not one lawyer or courtroom and not one surprise predicated on withheld information? A real writer just tells the truth line by line and that is sufficient. So, what's he waiting for?

While we are waiting for this question to be answered we are left to confront books like "Personal Injuries." It is perfectly readable, somewhat enjoyable, although at its heart it leaves the reader with the sense of taking a bath with his socks on.

The plot reads like an idea for a movie that studio executives come up with all the time and which, thank god, never get made: a lawyer, see, a successful one, gets nabbed by the IRS for tax evasion, and in order to save himself he rats out the judges he knows who have been taking money for favorable rulings, and to do so he has to wear a wire, etc.

To make it even tougher on him, his wife is slowly dying. This lawyer, Robbie Feaver, has a thing for the lesbian FBI agent who is assigned to him and they are so close yet so far away, etc. And whenever anyone in this book has a moment that is significant the author includes what Sydney Lumet (to advance the Hollywood Comparison) called the Rubber Ducky shot.

The Rubber Ducky shot is an account of something that happened years before and which, because it occurred in a formative moment, is significant.

For instance, here the narrator (who seems to be not present for the scenes he so easily invokes), describes the lesbian FBI agent's infatuation with a stripper. Frankly, this sounds much better than it is. Robbie Feaver, one guesses, is supposed to be a contradiction, a liar and yet somehow grand, but what comes across is an idea for such a character written to outline rather than a living, breathing mystery like, say, Jay Gatsby.

One of the things that Turow does best is to suggest the nitty gritty of law, the fine shadings of meaning that lawyers invoke when they talk to one another in a way that ordinary citizens haven't got a clue about. Surely, that is here, and yet, well, a lot of what goes into the technical aspects of the book seem unbelievable, such as a defense attorney going along with the FBI on stake-outs.

But the really critical thing here is that this book seems to me to be the work of a man who has learned how to write the Lawyer Novel, is doing it by the numbers and who is bored to tears with it. Well, as I say, the solution might be to take a chance as described at the top of this review. E.M. Forster once said that the pleasure of writing a novel is seeing how it all comes out, and this may be the mystery that Turow should investigate.

Craig Nova is author of 10 novels, including "The Good Son," "Tornado Alley" and "The Universal Donor." Lyons released his book "Brook Trout and the Writing Life" this month. He is at work on a new book and on a screen adaptation of "The Good Son."

Pub Date: 10/24/99

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