Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Just and the Unjust

Back in November Christine Thomas over at Literary Lotus published an interview with Scott Turow in which he came up with a list of the five best legal novels. I had read three of them: Billy Budd, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Snow Falling Cedars. I had not, however, read The Just and the Unjust, by James Gould Cozzens, about which Turow had this to say:

Cozzens was regarded as a major American novelist in the middle of the 20th century, and he has fallen by the wayside in terms of public esteem. But this is just a very, very good book about a small town lawyer. It’s ultra-realistic, which means that it is from that time when realist novelists believed that their job was to portray only the so-called middle range of experience, which other people might call boring. But it’s a really beautiful book. It’s a beautiful portrait of a time and a place. If anybody really ever wants to know what it was like to be a small town lawyer in the United States in the 1930s, people whose grandfathers or great-grandfathers were lawyers in a small town and want to know what their life was like, I would say read this book.

It turns out it’s not an easy book to get hold of. It’s not on the shelves at the local bookstores, and it’s not available on Kindle. I was able to get a pretty weatherbeaten copy from the UH library, and I found Turow’s assessment dead on. Although Cozzens may not have been an innovator or stylist along the lines of his contemporaries Faulkner and Hemingway, he is a capable and disciplined storyteller who knows his way around a sentence. His narrative style tends toward a kind of desciptive precision and deliberation that brings the world of the courtroom vividly to life and is very satisfying to read. Here, for example are the opening sentence of Chapter Two:

This was the hour when time stood still. The well of the court was sunk in tepid shadow. Above the slanting half circle of shadowed seats the courtroom windows were free from the sun now, but bright with light; and Abner, leaning back in his chair, could see the northeastern sky, a hazed hot blue behind the sunny treetops. The heavy quiet in the court was not broken so much as mildly stirred by Bunting's voice. Bunting's questions, even and dry, spoken slowly, rose in the silence and shadow, caromed off wall and ceiling, and the multiple echoes died. From the witness stand, Doctor Hill, the coroner, returned his answers with professional deliberation, the ripple of sound beginning again, widening out, echoing, dying.

On the bench Judge Vredenburgh moved his head, his double-chinned but strong and firm plethoric face turning in sharp advertence, his blue eyes glinting, from Bunting to the witness and occasionally to the jury. His right hand under the desk lamp before him could not be seen, but the light winked now and then on the metal end of a pencil as he wrote. Under the bench Joe Jackman, in the glow of his lamp, wrote too, and paused and wrote and paused, his expression bemused, his thoughts apparently far away. Next to Joe sat Nick Dowdy, gray head bowed, fat chin sunk on his chest, placidly asleep. Next to Nick, Mat Rhea, the clerk of Quarter Sessions, looked at his clasped hands, slowly and patiently twiddling his thumbs. Farther down the line, Gifford Hughes, the prothonotary, sat back, his mustache sadlydrooping, his eyes dreamily fixed in space. Beyond Gifford, Hermann Mapes, the clerk of the Orphans Court, bent forward, plainly busy with some of his office work. In their elevated chairs around the circle of the rail, the tipstaffs were drowsing. Now one, now another, now two or three at once nodded slowly. Then one or another woke, lifting his head with a light practiced jerk, affecting to have been awake all the time. Down by the lower doors the state police officers yawned.

I love the way the language moves in that passage, the attention to light and sound in the first paragraph, followed by the quick, deft, shorthand sketches of the local cast of characters in the second. Cozzens depicts them with empathy and deep understanding.

The main character in the book is Abner Coates, who is assistant to the District Attorney in a murder case. The novel follows in patient detail the course of the trial over three days. During those three days, Abner finds out that the DA is going to be moving on to another job and it looks like this will give Abner the chance to himself become the DA. The question is whether or not he wants it. He had thought he did, but then, for a variety of complicated reasons, he decides to turn it down, and in this passage, where we follow his thoughts as he tries to reconcile himself to his decision, seems to me to be a classic inventory of sorts, revealing a great deal of understanding about the life of a trial lawyer in particular, but also about the dilemma of really any person trying to find the balance between complex, challenging work and quality of life issues:

Walking up to where his car was parked behind the courthouse, Abner did what he could to adjust himself to such a great change of plan. It would certainly be a load off his mind. When you were in the district attorney's office they kept you on a sort of treadmill. Quarter Sessions were sure as death and taxes. You cleaned up the term's trial list, and as soon as you were through, indeed, before you were through, it began all over again. Night and day, people (and often old familiar ones) were busy with projects considered or unconsidered, which would suddenly collide with the law and become public. In advance you could count on case after case — always fifteen or twenty — of operating a motor vehicle while under the influence of intoxicating liquor. Boys were swiping things because they had no money; and some of them were going to be caught and held for burglary, larceny, and receiving stolen goods. There would be forcible entries here and felonious assaults there. Somebody would wantonly point a firearm; and somebody else would sell malt beverages on premises without license. Fornication had duly resulted in bastardy, and the Commonwealth was charged with seeing that the disgruntled father supported his little bastard. Heretofore respectable, an old man would feel indescribable urges to expose himself to women, and this was open lewdness. Forged instruments would be uttered, fraudulent conversions attempted; and, in passion or liquor, somebody might seek to kill a man or rape a woman.

And so the indictments piled up. The district attorney's office saw the prisoners, and talked to witnesses and listened to complaints. They arraigned the guilty pleas in Miscellaneous Court; and prepared the others for the grand jury. The county officers brought in to them the non-support and desertion cases; prisoners became eligible for parole, and the parole violators were picked up. Keeping step with it all (or sometimes a little behind) the papers to be signed and the forms to be filled kept accumulating — recognizances; petitions for appointment of counsel, for approval of bills of expense, for attachment, for condemnation and destruction of contraband, for support and to vacate support, for writs of habeas corpus ad prosequendum and ad testificandum; the criminal transcripts; the warrants; the waivers of jury trial — anyone ought to be glad to get rid of all that. Not to mention the endless hours in court while you asked formal tedious questions to foregone conclusions, while you waited for juries to make up their rambling minds, for his Honor to get through in chambers, for absent witnesses to be found and produced, for court to open and court to adjourn — "My God!" thought Abner. "What a way to spend your life!"

This is a book I really enjoyed reading, the kind of solid, patiently crafted book you can sink your teeth into.

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