The Bottom Line: A profound legal thriller that vacillates between comedy and tragedy en route to a moving finale. Levine delivers rarefied entertainment while daring us all to question the status quo.
The final book in Paul Levine’s Jake Lassiter series finds the defense attorney engaging in a battle that is decidedly personal. Long before Jake’s law career, he was a linebacker for the Miami Dolphins, where he was part of “the perfect season” – an undefeated record punctuated by a Super Bowl win. But with six of his teammates dead from CTE, and Jake himself struggling with the fatal disease, his time as a player now seems far from perfect.
When his godson, Rod, suffers a critical football injury, Jake decides to go on the offensive. He files an ambitious lawsuit to abolish tackle football in high schools – or at least make them drastically safer. The initial result is a media storm in which Jake is publicly villainized. In the following days and weeks, uninvited visitors to Jake’s home and Rod’s hospital room make clear that this is just the start of a very dangerous game.
As usual, Levine infuses Early Grave with plenty of dark humor. The jokes – which often exist only in Jake’s head – land early and often. But it’s all part of a sophisticated vehicle through which Levine explores whether parents, players, coaches, schools or others should be held accountable for crippling injuries. Given such sobering subject matter, it’s a miracle that the book is such a joy to read. Part of the reason is the crackling, zinger-laden dialogue that references everything from British royal history to case law. This is juxtaposed throughout with excerpts from contracts, statistics and waivers that hold an unflattering mirror to youth sports. On top of all that, readers can look forward to a brilliant literary headfake regarding Jake’s future that would be the envy of Dolphins great Larry Csonka.
Early Grave may be the last planned installment in the Jake Lassiter series, but thanks to just enough backstory, the book can easily be devoured by first-time fans as a gateway to Levine’s other work.