BOOKS Inside Jobs

In Presumed Innocent and The Old Left, some fascinating characters endure trials of the heart

One of the questions most often asked of novelists has to do with experience: how, people want to know, did the writer come by that beguiling store of knowledge about whaling, or bartending, or embalming, or epidemiology that lends his book the thick texture of authenticity? Not all writers take such pains, of course. Gore Vidal, author of numerous historical fictions (Burr, 1876, Lincoln, Empire), has often complained that too many American novelists, especially among the professoriate, simply know too little about how the world works: becalmed in the Sargasso Sea of academia, they turn out tepid, introverted books about tepid, introverted people. John Updike, whose own! novels have been attacked (unfairly, I think) for being too “writerly” and confined to a narrow, affluent band of the human spectrum, acknowledged his deficit in a plaintive essay some years ago: “I see all these insurance salesmen and carpenters and clerks going off to work each morning, and it fills me with wonder. What do people do all day?” The reader of Presumed Innocent (Far-rar, Strauss, and Giroux, $18.95) will not need to ask what Scott Turow does each day. Before entering private practice last year, Turow served for eight years as an assistant U.S. Attorney in Chicago, where he made his reputation as a prosecutor by putting away several corrupt judges in what was known as Operation Greylord.

But Turow has written no roman a clef. While a judge with a shady past and a hidden agenda does figure in the tale. Turow has done much more than change the names to protect the innocent and dodge libel suits. He has drawn on his ample experience to give us a riveting story of a legal battle, using his hard-won knowledge of the law, the psychology of juries, and especially the cut-and-thrust of courtroom maneuvering between prosecution and defense. But we are never lost in minutiae; the author makes us feel the vital weight of each lab report, each motion to suppress evidence. And he never lets us forget that while the law is the only instrument we have for calibrating guilt and innocence, it is still a most imperfect, clumsy instrument.

The plot of Presumed Innocent unfolds as Rusty Sabich, a deputy prosecuting attorney in an unnamed city, is assigned to investigate the rape and murder of his colleague Carolyn Bolhemus. Rusty’s boss, Raymond Horgan, is seeking another term as chief prosecuting attorney and losing ground fast to challenger Nico Delia Guardia, a former prosecutor once fired by Rusty. Delia Guardia has made the murder of Carolyn Polhemus a major campaign issue. Desperate, Horgan wants the killer caught before election day, so he puts his best man on the case, What the boss doesn’t know is that Rusty and Carolyn carried on a torrid love affair some months back, which ended with Carolyn abruptly dumping Rusty.

Presumed Innocent takes a quantum jump into irony and intrigue when, following the election, Rusty himself is charged with the murder of Carolyn, implicated by some pretty damning evidence. The balance of the book takes us through the preparation of Rusty’s case by a brilliant defense attorney who has faced Sabich as an adversary many times in the past. Then comes the trial, a convoluted, passionate roller-coaster ride with an ending impossible to guess, no matter how many clues are sprinkled about. Along the way, Sabich is forced to see the legal world from the other side. Once the state’s star hatchet man, he is now vulnerable, forced, to his revulsion, to seek refuge in the Fifth Amendment. Every step of the way. Rusty knows something that the layman suspect would not know, since he is privy to the inner workings of the legal machine. Though stunned by his predicament, Sabich chokes back his fear and helps to prepare his defense. But he misses nothing-such as the fact that his attorney carefully neglects to ask him whether he actually killed Carolyn Polhemus. The drama is heightened constantly because the former prosecutor is in a perfect position to know just what his accusers are doing, and how well.

With surprises aplenty right up to the last page. Presumed Innocent combines potboil-ing entertainment with a highly charged core sample from the gritty, vivid world of courtroom drama. In light of the verdict in Rusty’s trial, this provocative work will leave readers pondering the message that Sabich, as prosecutor, always gave juries in his opening argument: “If we cannot find the truth, what is our hope of justice?”

For a nice change of pace after this tangled murder story, I turned to The Old Left (Knopf. $15.95), Daniel Menaker’s collection of short stories about the uneasy love between a young New Yorker and his eccentric, crotchety Uncle Sol. David Leonard, a teacher at the Columbia School of Journalism, finds himself appointed the unofficial guardian of Sol as the older man, fiercely independent, slips into ill health and senility. Uncle Sol had been a Communist back in the Thirties and Forties, before the horrors of Stalin were made plain, and his knee-jerk distrust of American capitalism increasingly grates on David. Reading the sports pages, he launches into a tirade against the economics of baseball. “The profits the owners make are out of this world. It’s all part of the same lousy system, and something drastic is about to happen, believe you me. It’s got to happen, and it’s going to be soon.” In a poignant moment, David wonders whether Sol’s prophecies of doom arise from an aged man’s foreknowledge of his own death.

However, such bleak moments are not the rule in The Old Left. Menaker does as good a job as I’ve seen lately of rendering the curious dynamics that build up between family members-the young man wanting to free himself from his elders’ definitions, the old man trying to show his love but insisting, almost despite himself, on some gesture of fealty from his nephew. The gulf of politics stretches between them: Sol can never completely forgive David for his lukewarm stance on the Vietnam War; David grows frustrated trying to justify his apolitical, affluent life to his stubborn uncle.

Several of these stories are uncommonly moving. In “Brothers,” David’s older brother dies after a freak accident, bringing the surviving family members together for a lengthy vigil; in “Interference,” David and his new wife visit Sol at his farm in upstate New York, the scene of many happy memories from David’s childhood. Now, however. Sol is torn between leaving the farm to David and turning it into a kind of youth hostel for the Young Communists’ League. Their confrontation comes in a deeply felt blend of comedy and pathos, like so much else in The Old Left. Written with elegant simplicity, these stories together form a mosaic of a singular Jewish family, but Menaker’s insight and compassion include us all.

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