Review

Limitations

by Scott Turow



If I were accused of a crime, I'd want Scott Turow to be my lawyer
--- or my judge. I am greatly moved by the decency, complexity and
intelligence of his surrogates: flawed, Hamlet-like figures from
Rusty Sabich of PRESUMED INNOCENT to George Mason of PERSONAL
INJURIES (who now reappears in LIMITATIONS). Not to knock John
Grisham, whose ingenious plotting and extreme readability I
appreciate, but his characters are pure cardboard. Turow is the
anti-Grisham; he has a gift for storytelling and, even more, a deep
sense of humanity that gives his books texture and weight. No one
else could make moral ambivalence so darned entertaining.


Mason, the protagonist of LIMITATIONS, is a former defense lawyer
turned appeals court judge, and naturally he operates in Kindle
County, Illinois, Turow's fictional home territory. As the book
begins he is one of a three-man judicial panel hearing People v.
Warnovits
, the case of a gang rape by ice hockey players that
took place seven years ago (the crime has similarities to a 2004
scandal involving the Duke University lacrosse team). Mason's
response is complicated by the guilty memory of his involvement in
a similar sexual assault while in college. He is also terrified by
his wife's thyroid cancer, disturbed by a series of threatening and
mysterious emails, and ambivalent about running for another term as
appellate judge.


That's a lot of plates to send spinning into the air, but Turow
doesn't drop any: In the course of this short novel (only 197
pages) we learn the surprising truth about who's behind the
frightening messages, find out how the panel rules on the rape
case, and get a prognosis for Mason's wife and his own political
future.


There is plenty of action, in other words --- but what really
struck me were Turow's quietly dazzling powers of description and
psychological acuteness. It is not just George Mason who lives and
breathes and comes alive for us; the supporting characters have
their own distinctive, sardonic energy. A prosecuting attorney's
suit, "as usual, looked as if it had been stuffed into his desk
drawer for storage overnight." Mason's assistant has a "stiff jet
hairdo, a daily monument to the tensile strength of the polymers in
her hair spray." The chief of Court Security, 5'1" Marina Giornale,
"makes up for size in energy. She issues greetings to the
accompaniment of her raucous, rattling smoker's laugh and applies
her usual robust handshake. She sports a black mullet, and no
cosmetics."


In LIMITATIONS Turow really makes us see the people who occupy the
halls and chambers and courtrooms. And he makes us feel the moral
and psychological weight of Mason's preoccupations. The fact that
the judge's rulings matter, that he is "trusted to be the
conscience of [his] community," makes his work satisfying but
burdensome. He feels "caged by the proprieties of the role he's
taken on"; he wears a suit and tie every day because he feels "he
must lead by example in matters large and small." Usually decisive
--- "it's a job requirement and one at which he normally excels"
--- on the rape case he is uncharacteristically stuck, and he is
honest about his angst: "Who are we to judge?" this judge
asks.


What a mensch. Turow may be semi-sociological in his depiction of
the legal system (there are plenty of fascinating insider details
and villains galore, from major-league crooks to time-servers,
weaklings and opportunists), but he is also an idealist, and
something of a romantic. He creates not supermen, but plausible
heroes. Mason, in his stumbling, self-doubting way, is certainly
one of them.


LIMITATIONS began life as a serial in the Sunday New York Times
Magazine
, which perhaps accounts for its brevity and, I'm
afraid, its weaknesses. Serial novels, of course, are a grand old
tradition (think of Dickens!), but the slightly mechanical plot,
combined with the need to make the end of each chapter a
cliffhanger, runs counter to Turow's usual subtle, dense and
leisurely style. The "limitations" theme is a bit obvious, too,
referring to the boundaries of the judge's role and the possible
death of his wife as well as to the statute of limitations, which
is an issue in the rape case (normally, felony prosecutions aren't
allowed more than three years after the crime). Overall, the novel
tends toward the didactic, particularly at the end, where plot ends
are tied up rather too neatly and Mason's draft of his (fictional)
opinion in Warnovits is reproduced almost in its
entirety.


Coming from Scott Turow, LIMITATIONS is slightly disappointing, but
it's still better than almost anything else of its ilk. On page
after page the writing took my breath away: Here, for example, is
his account of what parenthood can do to a marriage: "You try to
figure out how to survive nature's slyest trick, using love to
produce someone to come between you." Or Mason's realization, after
he is carjacked, that "a human being is only this: a single
humiliated fiber that wants desperately to live."


A man who can produce sentences like that can be forgiven anything,
even an imperfect book.


   


















Reviewed by Kathy Weissman on December 30, 2010

Limitations
by Scott Turow

  • Publication Date: November 14, 2006
  • Genres: Fiction, Mystery
  • Paperback: 197 pages
  • Publisher: Picador
  • ISBN-10: 0312426453
  • ISBN-13: 9780312426453