I received a free review copy of Mike Papantonio’s Law and Addiction from the same folks who were responsible for me receiving the two Thom Hartmann books I’ve reviewed and Closer Than You Think, by Lee Maguire. There’s been no promises of anything other than a fair review, and … well, read on.
Law and Addiction tells the story of Jake Rutledge, a fresh-from-law-school West Virginian who discovers the week before his graduation that his twin brother Blake has just died from an addiction to opiates that Jake was unaware of. Jake decides to honor his brother by suing the companies responsible for the opiate epidemic, including the three largest (fictional) drug companies in America, and … well, it turns out that’s kind of complicated.
(True story: a relative has recently casually suggested to me that I sue a drug company because of some events related to the Ongoing Medical Calamity last summer. I, uh, declined, because I do not have millions of dollars and unlimited time. Neither does Jake Rutledge, but he is apparently very, very good at gaining allies.)
Now, here’s the thing: Mike Papantonio is a lawyer, and according to his biography (which also describes him as a “skilled musician and athlete”) he has actually sued pharmaceutical companies in connection with the opioid crisis. So there’s very much a John Grisham thing going on here, where this actual lawyer’s actual practice is informing the events in his fictional novels.
Let’s start with the good stuff: I read this novel in two big gulps over two days, so there’s certainly a page-turner in here; Papantonio has a Dan Brown-esque talent for writing books that read quickly and keep you moving through them, and he’s a reasonably talented writer on a sentence-to-paragraph level.
Unfortunately, the novel as a whole has some problems. I was surprised to discover while reading that this book about a lawyer who is suing drug companies for pushing pills, written by a lawyer who has sued drug companies for pushing pills, really doesn’t read like it was written by a lawyer. All the lawyerin’ is sort of pushed off the page, other than some courtroom scenes, and it feels like the action of a writer who doesn’t really want to learn how something like suing a drug company might actually work, and is instead mostly writing based on half-remembered court scenes from Netflixed episodes of Law and Order and L.A. Law.
I mean … the book is really clear several times on the timeline. Jake’s brother dies a week before Jake graduates from law school, and Jake gets home from graduation and immediately dives into this lawsuit.
Take a second and see if you can figure out what’s missing.
If you said “the bar exam,” pat yourself on the back. And I actually looked this up– West Virginia is one of the few states that will technically allow you to take the bar without your JD, but you have to have completed all of your classwork and just not have actually received the degree yet, and I’m pretty certain that’s not what’s supposed to have happened here. The author either didn’t think of it or didn’t think his audience would. Jake meets with one lawyer who is really mean to him for no good reason and then in the next scene has talked two counties into becoming his clients, one in Ohio and one in West Virginia, but we never actually see that conversation and never once in the book does he actually talk to his clients. Frequently what should be big plot points are just skipped over. He talks another big Florida lawyer into working as co-counsel because he needs a firm with resources, and the conversation is literally “I wrote a paper on you in law school and so I know how to ask you about this in a way that will pique your interest.” And then the guy drops everything to basically move to West Virginia for the rest of the book, taking a bunch of his team with him.
At one point I found myself musing about the cover description of the book as a “legal thriller,” and thinking that other than a really ham-handed attempt at a bribe early in the book there hadn’t been a lot of thriller elements in the book. Ten pages later Jake was kidnapped (off-screen, mind you) and crammed into a hog pen somewhere in the woods, where he was injected in the ass with some sort of opioid on a daily basis and also only provided food and drink laced with the drugs, because the idea is you get him hooked and then that discredits him somehow, right? Only once he escapes (because, in this scenario, you either have to let him go or he has to escape) he basically just says yeah, I was kidnapped, and well, yeah, obviously he was fucking kidnapped, and this plan goes nowhere. There was some Sinister Villain Talk about how they couldn’t just kill him, but then just before he escaped they changed their minds, I guess, but he got away.
And then the book ends on a note so abrupt and ridiculous that I’m tempted to spoil the entire thing, but … yeah, the ending is bad, y’all.
Here’s the thing: Mike Papantonio obviously cares very deeply about this issue, and one of the things that is good about this book is that his passion about the subject bleeds through into his characters. I don’t know if he’s ever lost anyone to opioid (is there a difference between “opioid” and “opiate”? I’ve been using them interchangeably) addiction but he’s very clearly emotionally involved in the issue and I have no doubt that he was a fierce advocate as a lawyer. But where I might enjoy reading a book about the twists and turns of the legal case with a little bit of personal jeopardy in there to justify the “thriller” label, what we get instead is lots of speeches and polemics about how awful drug companies are and how opiate addiction has destroyed so many communities in West Virginia and elsewhere. Which is true! This is a huge, real problem! But it’s also not really how humans talk, and a much-larger-than-expected portion of this book is folks tossing facts and figures at each other in a way that is fine for a polemic but not necessarily fine for a legal thriller.
I dunno. This one really missed the mark for me. I didn’t have to force myself to finish it or anything; again, the book has enough energy to carry you through it, but it’s not strong enough to recommend.