The laughs come from Blachman's Seinfeld-like eye for detail and [Woody] Allen-like fondness for the absurd.
Lots of people blog. Much smaller numbers, with desire and creativity, capture loyal followings. Of these, only a select few have the talent to consistently churn out quality material on a regular basis, the kind that gets noticed by major publishers. Fewer still have genuine comedic skills, and even less, save Arianna Huffington (whose celebrity gives her an advantage) and John Amato (whose political blog, "Crooks and Liars," was originally fueled by broadcast links), have what it takes to go viral. Of the handful remaining, how many -- without real world experience -- have convincingly posed as a gossiping, Machiavellian attorney, inspiring impassioned debate among hundreds of thousands of readers?
We're down to Jeremy Blachman.
Talented writers can certainly hold your attention, but it's not often one laughs out loud at the written word. Readers are more likely to register humor with mental notes. "Funny stuff," we think. Even SeinLanguage, the 1993 essay collection by Jerry Seinfeld, elicits smiles more than actual laughs. Woody Allen certainly had the knack, and the casuals he wrote for The New Yorker have been collected more than once, most notably in Side Effects and Without Feathers. Hilarious collections both, with each story independent of the next, no character development, no connective plot. (Not unlike a blog, you might say.) Allen has never written a novel. Neither has Seinfeld. Perhaps it's too daunting a task to sustain novel-length laughs. Neither man has a legal background. Imagine the possibilities if they combined their talents into a legal-themed romp ...
They might wind up with something resembling Anonymous Lawyer. Jeremy Blachman's laugh-out-loud debut, is a fast-paced hyperbole packed with chilling insights into firm life. The pace comes from the plot (Who is AL? Will he be found out? Will lives be destroyed?); the laughs come from Blachman's Seinfeld-like eye for detail and Allen-like fondness for the absurd. (One of the associates at AL's firm is referred to as "The One Who Missed Her Kid's Funeral.") The laughs are numerous and almost always guilty pleasures. When someone slips on a banana peel, there's no initial pity. First, we laugh at their pain. Blachman's narrator turns ultra-serious legal types (and ultimately himself) into banana peel victims. He sends up their stereotypical attributes -- aggression, ambition, emotional disconnection -- in practically every paragraph. He does so without flinching, without mercy, without remorse.
The novel derives from the success of Blachman's blog and keeps its sharpness and wit. During the blog's heyday, despite the "fictional" in its tagline (Stories from the trenches, by a fictional hiring partner at a large law firm in a major city), the Anonymous Lawyer behind the ice-cold barbs was mostly thought to be a real attorney. After a New York Times article revealed Blachman -- a Harvard Law School grad -- to be its author, the jig was up and a novelist was born. What's scary is the sheer number of people convinced of the authenticity of Blachman's creation. This is a character fond of kicking paralegals. Can firm life really be this despicable?
Possibly. A recent study at the University of Indiana concluded that the highest-earning practitioners in large private practices reported the lowest overall job satisfaction, while their lower-earning counterparts, along with law professors, reported higher overall job satisfaction. The trade-off between income and job satisfaction is a topic Blachman has deftly handled since his earliest days as a blogger. The novel expands on this conflict -- and on the inner life of its narrator -- to a satisfying degree.
And Blachman manages to make the story poignant. No small feat considering the odious hero, who's obsessed with becoming his firm's chairman, and who starts a blog as a means of venting and zinging his colleagues. Through the blog and various emails, we glimpse what at first seemed nonexistent: a human side. His wife, his son, his niece: all help create a sliver of soul. Perversely, this sliver is just enough to make us root for him. Once his blog gains readership, and once he receives an email saying: "I know who you are," the story rallies with tension and plot and intrigue and mystery. The laughs turn bittersweet.
Whether or not this tasty book will find an audience outside its pre-sold legal demographic is almost entirely up to the marketing department of Henry Holt & Company. Anonymous Lawyer is pure enjoyment for anyone in a legal profession, but also for fans of thrillers, black comedies, psychological explorations, confessionals, reality television, and business tell-alls.
The Times article that revealed Blachman's identity quoted a reader who praised his writing. "It's a shame if those talents are going to waste in corporate law." Another shame would be missing out on this scathing comic drama.