Literary Corner Cafe

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Book Review - Innocent by Scott Turow


I read Scott Turow’s debut novel, Presumed Innocent about ten or twelve years ago, after watching the movie on DVD. I was impressed with Turow’s writing. I found him both intelligent and stylish. At times, I wasn’t too fond of the book’s protagonist, Rozak K. “Rusty” Sabich, and I was thoroughly disgusted by his wife, Barbara, but I did find Rusty a fascinating character. In Presumed Innocent, Rusty seemed a little too passive for a man whose career and freedom are on the line. Rusty, who was an amazing trial attorney in the first book and is an amazing appellate judge in this one, apparently lacks self-discipline when it comes to indulging his desires, and that lack gets him in big trouble. In Presumed Innocent, as a young prosecuting attorney, Rusty is charged with the murder of his lover and colleague, Carolyn Polhemus, a murder he didn’t commit. Most of the book deals with finding out who really did kill Carolyn and how to get the charges against Rusty dismissed. In Innocent, Rusty is once again charged with murder, but this time, it’s not a lover whose been found dead.

The Barbara and Rusty Sabich we meet in Innocent are, in many ways, the same Barbara and Rusty Sabich we met in Turow’s debut novel, and in other ways, they are very different. They’re older. Rusty is now sixty, and Barbara, still attractive, due in part to a fanatic exercise regimen (two hours a day, five days a week), is in her late fifties. Rusty is now the Chief Judge of the Third District Court of Appeals in Turow’s fictional Kindle County, which is much like Illinois’ Cook County, and he hopes to win a seat on the State Supreme Court in the upcoming November election. Both parents still adore their son, Nat, who is now nearly thirty, however both Barbara and Rusty still haven’t managed to overcome some very difficult situations in life and flaws in his/her character.

Barbara is severely bipolar, agoraphobic, and though she takes medication (she’ll try anything), she is, more often than not, an unhappy, screaming harridan. Rusty, though highly respected in his capacity as a judge, still has trouble looking the other way when young, beautiful women are around. This is a little surprising, at least initially. It’s been twenty-two years since charges that he murdered Carolyn were dismissed, and he says those charges and their subsequent dismissal taught him to “show some gratitude to whatever force allowed me to skate across the thinnest ice and make it.”

Maybe that “gratitude” is why Rusty chose to remain married to a person as purely evil as Barbara. I don’t know, and Turow doesn’t give us much of a reason other than the fact that Rusty was concerned about the emotionally fragile and impressionable Nat, the Sabichs only child, and the effect on Nat should his mother not be in his day-to-day life.

Those of us who’ve read Presumed Innocent and know what kind of woman Barbara Sabich is and what she’s capable of, will have to strain our suspension of disbelief a little in order to accept the fact that any man, any man at all, would just pick up life with Barbara where it left off after Carolyn Polhemus’ murder, thinking Barbara, mother though she be, would be good for a highly impressionable four-year-old child, a delicate child in need of extensive psychotherapy. Even more shocking is the fact that Rusty resumes a “two to three times a week” intimate relationship with his wife. Readers who’ve read Presumed Innocent want to hit Rusty over the head with both that book and this one and say something like, “Dude! Look what she did! Wake up!” However, if you want to enjoy Innocent, and it is highly enjoyable, then you just have to accept Rusty’s decision to remain married to and intimate with Barbara, improbable though it be.

Innocent begins with an attention grabbing scene, and a bit of dialogue that show us what a master writer Turow is:

“A man is sitting on a bed. He is my father.

“The body of a woman is beneath the covers. She was my mother.”

Turow is sensitive to verb tenses. I greatly appreciated that because many of today’s writers are not. I appreciate the care with which this author wrote his story.

Since the above dialogue occurs on page one, it’s not a spoiler to tell you that it’s Barbara who is dead, and it’s Rusty who is sitting on the bed. The chapter is narrated by Nat, of course. Right away, the central mystery of the book is set up: Did Barbara die a natural death, or did someone kill her? If someone killed her, who? Rusty? Nat? Someone else? And why, for goodness sake, did Rusty wait twenty-four hours to phone the police? Why did he rearrange the bedroom? He is, after all, a judge, a legal professional, and he knows the implications of sitting with a corpse for a day rather than calling for help.

When the coroner’s initial report shows that Barbara likely died of hypertensive heart failure, Rusty’s old nemesis, attorney, Tommy Molto, now Kindle County’s prosecuting attorney, is satisfied. “I can’t go near this,” Tommy says of allegations that Rusty might be responsible for Barbara’s death. “Too much history.” Tommy remembers all too well the perils of indicting on flimsy evidence, since it had been Tommy Molto who was certain Rusty had been responsible for Carolyn Polhemus’ murder. In fact, even though he was sanctioned for deliberately mishandling evidence at Rusty’s trial, Tommy remains convinced of Rusty’s guilt where Carolyn is concerned. He has, however, learned to be cautious, and he bears Rusty no grudge for what happened nearly twenty-five years ago. “A grudge,” Tommy says, “was a badge of the dishonest, who could not face the truth, including a truth that was unflattering to them.”

Tommy’s young chief deputy, Jim Brand, however, is a different story. Brand is convinced that Rusty did kill Barbara, and when events finally persuade Tommy of Rusty’s guilt yet a second time, Rusty is arrested and charged.

If you read Presumed Innocent (you really don’t have to in order to enjoy this book, though I recommend it highly), you’ll know when Rusty Sabich is in trouble, he calls on stellar criminal defense attorney, Sandy Stern. It was a young and elegant Sandy Stern who defended Rusty when he was on trial two decades ago, and it’s an aged and cancer stricken, but still elegant, Sandy Stern, along with daughter Marta, who defends Rusty yet again. Sandy Stern was one of my favorite characters in Presumed Innocent, and I was glad to see him again in this book.

A prominent character in Innocent, who we didn’t meet in the earlier book, is Anna Vostic, Rusty’s thirty-four year old former law clerk. Curvaceous and intelligent, on the surface Anna seems a lot like Carolyn, and both Rusty and Nat take an interest in her.

I found Anna’s characterization to be complex. Though she seems, at first glance, to be so wild and free, when we look more closely, the reader finds she’s a very dark and troubled young woman. Maybe not wholly likable, but still, understandable. I did think she was totally wrong for both Rusty and Nat. These are both men who really can’t deal properly with a troubled partner.

I really didn’t like Nat in Presumed Innocent, because he seemed pampered and spoiled, and I didn’t care for him in Innocent, either. The problem for me was that Nat cried and broke down far too much. Yes, I know he was an emotionally fragile young man, and I know he’d been through a lot, having a mother like Barbara. And I know men really should get in touch with their feminine side. But breaking into tears ten or fifteen times during the course of the book was just a bit too much for me. The fact that Nat was a man had no effect on my dislike. A female character who broke down that many times would have irked me as well. Readers are attracted to strong and competent characters. Sure, they can be terribly flawed, they just can’t be weak, and Nat, I’m afraid, is weak.

While Rusty and Barbara are, for the most part, unchanged from the earlier novel, Tommy Molto, on the other hand, is greatly changed. A firebrand in Presumed Innocent, Tommy Molto has mellowed with the years and with the love he feels for his young son, the only child of his late-in-life marriage. While Rusty might believe he remained with Barbara out of love for Nat, it’s Tommy Molto who, surprisingly, proves to be the dedicated family man as well as the novel’s moral center.

Innocent is told from the points of view of Rusty, Nat, and Anna, while omniscient narration functions to tell Tommy Molto’s side of things. There are many shifts back and forth in time, which several readers I know did not like. I, myself, found the structure of Innocent very sophisticated, and I felt oriented at all times. Turow masterfully sets up two story threads – in the first, he recounts, little by little, the events that led up to Barbara’s death, while the second encompasses Rusty’s second murder trial, with Sandy Stern at the helm. I love multiple points of view, but those readers who really dislike them probably won’t like Innocent, even though Turow handled viewpoint wonderfully.

Rusty, of course, is a deeply flawed human being. We can understand him, we can feel sympathy for him, but we don’t always like him or agree with his choices. I think the key to understanding Rusty is to realize that he’s terribly masochistic. While I couldn’t help but absolutely despise Barbara, any man who would remain married to her knowing what Rusty knows has to be masochistic. And once a reader grasps the full extent of that masochism, he or she will no longer say that Rusty’s actions do not ring true. They do. Given Nat’s ability for self-deception, readers have to wonder if Rusty passed this negative trait to his only child, and if we’ll encounter Nat is a future book.

There are readers who criticized this book for not being a “legal thriller,” and yes, Turow did invent the genre with Presumed Innocent, paving the way for more prolific, but less careful and deliberate writers like John Grisham. But expecting Innocent to be a “thriller” is, I think, to miss the book’s point. This book is a more reflective character study than a plot driven thriller. It’s a melancholic and elegiac book that explores serious issues like aging, marriage, and death. And yes, innocence.

The writing in Innocent, like all the writing in all of Turow’s books, is sophisticated and mature. Turow is at his best, I think, when describing the courtroom scenes (Rusty’s trial encompasses the second half of the book) and the meanderings of the legal system he knows so well.

While there are no “I can’t believe it!” moments in Innocent, the book does, I think, capture so well the darkness and failings to which most human beings at time succumb. And that, I think, is this novel’s whole raison d’etre.

4.5/5

Recommended: If you like character studies of deeply flawed human beings and are not expecting a “legal thriller” you’ll probably enjoy this book. Rusty’s trial for murder does encompass almost the entire second half of the book, so be prepared to learn quite a bit about the US legal system. The book is rather slow paced and melancholic, and at times, you have to dig deep to understand the characters and their motivations, however it’s all worth it.

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