WHEN THE PAPER CHASE hit the big screen, many a preprofessional conscience flinched. Perhaps some even paused a moment in their diligent march through college to law school--if it's really that bad, is it worth the pain? Several years later, juridical ambition springs anew, however, and John Jay Osborn Jr. '67 is teasing our insecurities again with another novel about the brutal rituals of the law profession. You may make it through Harvard Law, but can you stand the initiation rites of your first year in a prestigious Wall Street firm?
Osborn's new book displays an unfortunate tendency to unity of form and content. Sam Weston, a fledgling associate at Bass and Marshall, is somewhat at sea in what Osborn portrays as a paranoid, chaotic world of a Wall Street firm. Likewise, Osborn's writing flounders--his conversational tone includes all the usual non-sequiturs, flaws of grammar, and fragmented sentences, and none of the spontaneity. His imagery floats aimlessly is a sea of conventionality, occasionally grasping at some hapless metaphor and squeezing the life from it:
I wanted Scotch to take me off to sleep....My mind just kept driving. I hoped it would take a wrong turn and smash itself against a concrete divider. I was going someplace fast, weaving toward it. Finally, my mind swung through a turn and hit the brakes.....
YOUNG WESTON recovers. Having lost his lover to an ambitious senior associate and his only friend to academia, he finally gets his feet on the ground by engrossing himself in his work. Professor Osborn improves as well. Presumably more familiar with his subject here, he writes more smoothly about Weston's ascent. Characters become at least humanoid, if never quite lifelike. Camilla Newman, whose most interesting feature is her name, is for most of the book just another pretty face fronting an ambitious, competitive young lawyer. As Weston begins to make it by himself, Camilla develops more personal qualities of bitchiness and vulnerability. Even the ogre-like partners reveal extenuating circumstances behind their nearly cannabalistic behavior.
A graceful denouement makes The Associates easier to finish, but it doesn't relieve the tedium. Osborn's choppy, five-page chapters seem destined for TV serialization. The all-encompassing theme, that life is like contract law, gives only superficial gloss and structure to a tame love story. When it's all over and done with, Osborn straddles the only issue he raises--is the Wall Street rat race worth it? Weston's friend, Littlefield, drops out only to land gloriously as a Yale Law School professor, and Weston and Newton, although they leave Bass and Marshall, still seem in awe of the grand old head of the firm, Cosmo Bass, and are fairly well indoctrinated, if somewhat rambunctious.
Osborn seems to do nothing more than reuse the ingredients of The Paper Chase for his new novel--a glamorous setting, a love interest, a perceptive but inexperienced protagonist coming up against uncompromising traditions. The Associates reads like a novelization of the bad TV movie which it will undoubtedly become.