Three students realize that they’ve sweated out nearly three years in a grubby for-profit law school where the only people making good money are the administrators and the web of companies that own the schools and funnel students into catastrophic levels of debt.
How can they escape?
This is a John Grisham novel, so they will escape, via a plot so intricate Grisham himself had to flow-chart it out to make sure all the unlikely pieces fit. And the heroes, and their families, will be in peril until the very last pages.
Grisham said in a telephone interview that he set “The Rooster Bar” (Doubleday, $28.95) in 2014, “the apex of the for-profit law school scam.”
“They entice these kids to come in and borrow huge sums of money,” Grisham said — students with poor standardized scores and unremarkable resumes, believing that law school is a ticket to the monied, privileged life.
Disabusing law students of their illusions is nothing new: At Grisham’s first day of law school at Ole Miss in 1978, his professor said that the goal was to flunk out half the class.
“And they did,” Grisham said.
But Grisham attended a public university. With for-profit law schools — in this case, Grisham’s fictitious Foggy Bottom law school in Washington, D.C., a name so preposterous that you will smirk every time you read it — the goal is keep the loan money rolling into the school coffers until the students graduate. Half of them can’t pass the bar exam. Those who do find themselves with meager options, none of them offering the distinction they thought they were buying.
And then come the debt collectors, pouncing on students who have rolled up debts of more than $100,000.
“Each year a million kids go into default,” Grisham said. “Their credit is going to be ruined for decades. … They can’t buy homes, they can’t get married, they can’t start families. … It still drags on the economy. It was easy debt created by Congress.”
Grisham’s characters — Mark, Todd and Zola — hit upon a series of schemes to make some money off their skills. They test the water of class-action lawsuits and learn how much money it takes to deal with immigration issues. They break a lot of laws. The question is, who’s more corrupt, those operating within an unjust system of laws or those who flaunt those laws and seem to get away with it?
In the process of trying to make good, the trio racks up more than a few felonies — from income tax evasion to practicing law without a license to class action fraud, and that’s just the top of batting order — but they manage to save their souls, sort of.
A University of Kentucky graduate — law school and undergraduate — makes a cameo character appearance as the quippiest lawyer in Washington. She is both funny and casually sexual: an Easter egg for the Kentuckians before whom Grisham will appear on Nov. 1 at Lexington’s Kentucky Theatre.
Grisham’s characters “got almost everything wrong, except for the very end. … They found themselves in a position where they had to kind of get savvy to survive and escape the creditors. … They kind of bumble and stumble along, and at the end, they get lucky.”
Although his characters are slaying bad-guy dragons, Grisham said he is above all else telling a story: “I’m not on a soapbox.”
Among his own favorite authors are Mark Twain, Charles Dickens and John Steinbeck; he has also read a good deal of F. Scott Fitzgerald. His book stack includes the latest book from James Lee Burke, “Robicheaux,” as well as Scott Turow’s “Testimony.”
Grisham is a consistent worker, a habit he picked up early in his career as a writer: “A Time to Kill” was published in 1988, followed by “The Firm” in 1991. Grisham heard that the popular writers, people like Stephen King and Ken Follett, published every year — and since then, he has published not only every year, but sometimes multiple times a year.
In 2017, “The Rooster Bar” is Grisham’s second published book; in June, “Camino Island,” a novel about stolen books and manuscripts, was published.
“First and foremost, it’s always for entertainment,” Grisham said of his work. “If I can also take an issue such as student debt, for-profit law schools, maybe the problem is illuminated to some degree.”