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Brain Storm ()

Tom Wolfe wrote an essay some years ago in which he urged his fellow authors to climb down out of the ivory tower and start "stalking the billion-footed beast". He meant they should abandon the interiority of literary theory--in which they plumb only their own minds and write only for each other--and return to the writing of novels of "highly detailed realism based on reporting" in the nature of Dickens and Zola. Mr. Wolfe himself proceeded to do precisely that, in Bonfire of the Vanities and A Man in Full, incisive social satires of the '80s and '90s respectively. To the best of my knowledge, the literary Left at whom the essay was aimed disdained the advice, but, interestingly, here's another conservative novelist, Richard Dooling, who, whether on Wolfe's advice or his own initiative, has produced a scathingly funny novel of modern life.

Brain Storm concerns a hotshot young corporate attorney, Joe Watson, who specializes in researching the arcana of video games in search of copyright violations. He's got a bright future, a perfect wife and child, and a mortgage just barely within his means. But then an irascible, lawyer-loathing Federal Judge assigns him to a pro bono case, defending a white supremacist charged with a hate crime for killing the deaf black man he caught in flagrante delicto with his wife. The government wants the death penalty for political reasons, the federal attorney wants to wrap up the case in time to run for the U.S. Senate on it, the law firm doesn't want Watson wasting billable hours on an indigent, and his wife doesn't want him defending a racist, but, even as his life crashes around him, he gets caught up in the intellectual problems posed by the case and forges ahead. The first conundrum: should the state really be in the business of trying to determine what people were thinking when they committed what are already criminal acts. As the Judge puts it: "It's hard enough trying to find out what the accused did. Now you want to add to that another four days of trial to find out what he was thinking about when he did it?'' Second, thanks to a sexy neuroscientist who's brought in to examine the client: are any of us really responsible for our actions or are we just self-glorified biological machines responding to chemical and electrical commands.

The situation and these issues afford Mr. Dooling the opportunity, which he exploits to the fullest, to lambaste lawyers, the politicization of the law, the desire of science to free us from our consciences, etc. Especially interesting, though it does sidetrack the author at times, is how Joe Watson's Catholic faith in the existence of the soul and of morality is challenged by physical temptation and scientific cant. If the book ends up somewhat overstuffed and the mystery in the middle gets kind of lost, it's nonetheless deliciously sardonic, proudly politically incorrect, rich in ideas, and great fun to read.


Grade: (A)


See also:

Richard Dooling Links:

    -AUTHOR SITE: Richard Dooling
    -ESSAY: Curbing That Pesky Rude Tone (RICHARD DOOLING, 2/28/11, NY Times)
    -ESSAY: Revenge of the Cornhuskers (RICHARD DOOLING, 10/02, NY Times)
    -SHORT STORY: Diary Of An Immortal Man (Richard Dooling, May 1999, Esquire Magazine)
   -ESSAY: The Risk Not Taken: Eliot Spitzer is going after the wrong insurance company. (RICHARD DOOLING, 4/03/05, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of HATE CRIMES: Criminal Law & Identity Politics By James B. Jacobs and Kimberly Potter (Richard Dooling, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of UNCOLLECTING CHEEVER: The Family of John Cheever vs. Academy Chicago Publishers By Anita Miller (Richard Dooling, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of A Beautiful Mind by Sylvia Nasar (Richard Dooling, Salon)
    -INTERVIEW: Double Indemnity Meets Dead Souls: A conversation with novelist Richard Dooling (Jeremy Lott, 01/06/2003, Christianity Today)
    -ARCHIVES: "richard dooling (Find Articles)
    -STUDY GUIDE: Brain Storm by Richard Dooling (Nebraska Center for Writers)
    -REVIEW: of Brain Storm by Richard Dooling (Richard Bernstein, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of Brain Storm by Richard Dooling (Colin Harrison, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Brain Storm by Richard Dooling (Gary Marshall, Spiked)
    -REVIEW: of Brain Storm (Stephen M. Murphy, Lawyers Writing)
    -REVIEW: of Brain Storm (Christa Palmer, MetroActive)
    -REVIEW: of Brain Storm by Richard Dooling (Mat Coward, Tangled Web)
    -REVIEW: of BLUE STREAK: Swearing, Free Speech and Sexual Harassment By Richard Dooling (Richard Bernstein, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of BLUE STREAK: Swearing, Free Speech and Sexual Harassment By Richard Dooling (Meredith Renwick, Jam)
    -REVIEW: of Bet Your Life By Richard Dooling (JANET MASLIN, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of Bet Your Life By Richard Dooling (Mark Costello, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Bet Your Life By Richard Dooling (Tibor Fischer, The Guardian)

    -FILMOGRAPHY: Richard Dooling (
    -INFO: Critical Care (

Book-related and General Links:
    -ESSAY: Hate and Punishment: Does the criminal's motive matter? (James Q. Wilson, Sept 13, 1999, National Review)
    -ARTICLE: Brain scan 'identifies race bias' (Annanova)
    -ARTICLE: Humanity? Maybe It's in the Wiring (SANDRA BLAKESLEE, 12/09/03, NY Times)