The Laws of Our Fathers

Rob Spillman reviews Scott Turow's novel "The Laws of Our Fathers".

Published October 9, 1996 7:00PM (EDT)

Expecting this to be a typical mega-selling legal thriller with wafer-thin cardboard cutout characters booming clichi-steeped B-movie dialogue, I was startled to find myself caught up in the well-rendered lives of realistic, multi-faceted characters entangled in a sinister and politically messy court case. The setting is Kindle County, a Midwestern metropolis much like Chicago. A state senator's wife is gunned down in the projects, and her son, a probation officer known for hanging with gangsters, is charged with setting up the hit, which had been intended for his domineering father. Bouncing between the present and 1969, when the principles were coming of age at a college much like the University of California at Berkeley, Turow tells the two stories from numerous points of view, slowly revealing the truths about past and present crimes. In 1969 the senator was a radical professor committed to stopping the Vietnam war by any means necessary, including duping his son's baby-sitter into taking a bombing rap.

Now a syndicated columnist living in Seattle, the baby-sitter returns to Kindle to help his hapless former charge beat the state's ironclad case. He does this by recruiting his best friend, a black attorney who was also double-crossed by the senator back in San Francisco. Presiding over the case is Sonny Klonsky, the columnist's college sweetheart for whom he once again pines. Turow eschews the cheap dramatics of most legal potboilers by having the case be heard as a bench trial, which means no jury of gullible boobs from central casting. And by examining much of the trial from the learned point of view of the judge, he makes the legal machinations fast-paced and believably surprising.

But the trial serves almost as a backdrop to the drama of the intertwining lives of the reunited idealists of the late '60s. Once dedicated to fighting the power, now they are the power. Having rebelled against their parents, having wondered "what would happen to all of us, parents and children, if the laws of our fathers were forgotten," they now question their own legacies, the laws they are passing on to their own children. Racism, sexism, poverty, corruption, loss, honor, valor, redemption -- it's all mixed up in this ambitious, very American saga, an unruly, sprawling tale offering no easy answers, but plenty to think about.

By Rob Spillman

Rob Spillman is editor of Tin House magazine.

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