cover image Brain Storm

Brain Storm

Richard Dooling. Random House (NY), $25 (416pp) ISBN 978-0-679-45239-3

When white supremacist James Whitlow shoots his wife's lover, a deaf African American sign language teacher, he finds himself a prime candidate for the application of new hate-crime statutes. But is he guilty of a hate crime? Enter his court-appointed lawyer, Joe Watson of Stern, Pale, the best law firm in St. Louis. A research wonk by avocation, an old schoolmate of Whitlow's by chance, young Watson resists pressure from colleagues and family to plea bargain: until all the facts come out, he means to stand by his client. Watson is such a nebbish, however, that it's hard to feel for him, especially since his triumphs occur offstage. He may write one hell of a brief, but as an action figure he often seems superfluous. Myrna Schweich, the tough-talking criminal lawyer he hooks up with, makes the good suggestions; curmudgeonly old Judge Stang explains the points of law; and even Rachel Palmquist, the sexy neuroscientist who wants to operate on Whitlow, gives Watson legal advice. Will he fall for Rachel's brainy charms? Since Watson can't imagine his wife (an unattractive walk-on character) as anything other than the ball and chain to whom he's pledged fidelity, it's difficult to care. Dooling, a lawyer whose White Man's Grave was a 1994 NBA finalist, has taken an intriguing law-school conundrum and grafted it onto a study of white-collar mores. The result is half bull session, half film noir. Yet the novel is saved by its extra-dry sense of satire (the Jamesian nameplay is only the start), faltering only when Dooling seems to ask that we take his characters with a straight face rather than as elements in a sharply drawn lampoon of a society drowning in legalisms. Film rights to Alan Pakula. (Apr.)