If you like John Hart, you’ll like ‘The Legal Limit’
“The Legal Limit,” by Martin Clark. Alfred A. Knopf. 2008. 368 pp. $24.95.By Deirdre Parker Smith
Martin Clark writes a lot like John Hart. Both are (or have been) lawyers. Both are Southerners, both tell stories of troubled families.
Clark is now a judge, and this work of fiction is based on facts too amazing, he says, to leave alone.
Two brothers, a sort of Cain and Abel, grow up hard, with a mean-as-a-hornet daddy who likes to beat his boys.
Mason wants to rise above it and get away from little Stuart, Va. Gates is a loose cannon, a drunk, a drug abuser, later a drug dealer, a punk in training to be a full-fledged loser with a capital L.
Gates kills some poor troublemaker and Mason helps him cover it up. They’re young and scared. Mason doesn’t want their mama to suffer any more heartache.
Somehow, it goes away. Mason graduates from law school, gets a cushy job in a Richmond law firm and excels. Gates goes from punk loser to near sociopath, fighting a plea deal on a drug charge and ending up in the slammer for a long, long time.
Periodically, he wheedles and whines at Mason, now married to a beautiful artist and with a young daughter, to “fix” things so he can get out of prison. When Mason gets an offer to come back to Stuart as a Commonwealth attorney, it pleases his mama, but sets Gates off on a tear, harassing, haranguing and threatening Mason to get him out of jail.
It’s not all flowers and sunshine for Mason. A terrible tragedy rocks his world ó and sets off a series of events that could lead to his complete destruction.
It’s a good story, easy to read and with likeable characters. They do fit certain types. Mama Sadie Grace (these double names for Southern women drive me crazy) works in a dead-end job that, along with Gates, ages her beyond her years. Custis, Mason’s black law partner is a little too hip ó rap music, a Cadillac, a secret love for rum and weed. There’s a collection of cussed thugs and disgruntled rednecks to muddy the water. Cutout cops who like to play tough.
Mason makes some colossally stupid choices in his life that will make readers rooting for him cringe. When Gates makes a last-ditch effort to punish his brother and get out of prison, disaster looms like a dam about to break.
The solution involves much hand wringing, soul-searching, blackmail, barely legal maneuverings and huge sacrifices. It resolves, but it isn’t a clean ending or a sure thing.
Clark leaves one character dangling: The evil brother Gates. It would have been more satisfying to see him get what’s coming to him ó but Clark, presumably working from the real story, doesn’t give readers that satisfaction.
Pay close attention to his Part One and Part Three. Did this story really happen? What was his involvement. Very intriguing stuff.
Clark is definitely a writer to keep up with.
Martin Clark will sign copies of “The Legal Limit” on Friday, Aug. 8, during Night Out on the Town, 7-9 p.m., at Literary Bookpost, 119 S. Main St.