A clever, intricately plotted and amusing novel about a lawyer’s refusal to concede defeat.
Kevin Moore, once a high-flying Virginia attorney, hits rock bottom after an inexplicably tumultuous summer leaves him disbarred and separated from his wife. Short on cash and looking for work, he lands in the middle of nowhere with a job at SUBstitution, the world’s saddest sandwich shop. His closest confidants: a rambunctious rescue puppy and the twenty-year-old computer whiz manning the restaurant counter beside him. He’s determined to set his life right again, but the troubles keep coming. And when a bizarre, mysterious stranger wanders into the shop armed with a threatening “invitation” to join a multimillion-dollar scam, Kevin will need every bit of his legal savvy just to stay out of prison.
I hadn’t heard of Martin Clark’s novels before I saw this available for review. It sounded rather interesting, however, so I decided to give it a try. And I’m very glad that I did — in addition to solid prose, Clark is able to weave quite the twisty, quirk tale that kept me hooked and guessing until the end.
As a protagonist, Kevin Moore is quite fun to spend time with. He’s a disgraced lawyer, a recovering drug user, and has certainly hit rock bottom: he’s gone from being the toast of the town and society to a clerk at a sandwich shop. It’s certainly not where he saw himself ending up. Over the course of this novel, Moore finds himself embroiled in a scam that he wanted nothing to do with. Roped in unwittingly by vindictive crooks, his life just seems to get worse and worse.
“The irony of an imprisoned criminal lawyer is stark and comical, a brutal reversal, but I simply numb myself and mark time until Friday. I’m bitterly unhappy, but after some practice, any new miseries surrender their full potency and have no incremental effect. I’ve lost the love of my life, almost stroked out, forfeited my livelihood and most of my money, embarrassed my profession and been reduced to running a bad sandwich shop. My immediate friends are a mongrel dog and a pot-dealing coworker half my age. Jail’s not the worst of it.”
Given how the novel unfolds, I want to avoid talking about the plot in any great detail: this is a quirky tale that unfolds in a rather unexpected way. Moore seems to make so many mistakes — in part due to apparent incompetence or arrogance — that you really have to wonder how on Earth he is going to get himself out of his predicament. Along the way, he comes into contact with a variety of locals — friendly and otherwise — and attempts to keep intact what little of a life he has cobbled together since his fall.
Through Moore’s story, Clark touches upon a number of legal, cultural and societal topics and issues of contemporary America. From the myriad traps and pitfalls of the law, the frustrations and frequent cruelties of the healthcare system, to societal expectations in the South, the author offers plenty of sharp, amusing observations. Moore’s not afraid of ruffling feathers, poking at taboos, or insulting others (for example, he doesn’t have much patience with organized religion). He’s an endearing character, and despite his foibles you do end up rooting for his success. The ending was satisfying on a number of levels, too. (It’s very nicely done.)
Overall, then, I really enjoyed The Substitution Order. About a quarter of the way through, I decided to also buy a couple of his other novels, which I hope to read very soon. Entertaining, quite different from your typical legal novels, and satisfying.
The Substitution Order is out now, published by Knopf.