Although Vaughn Carney’s new novel is about Harvard Law School students, his characters are not chasing paper. That’s not, after all, what most people go to the Combat Zone to find.
Scenes of debauchery in Boston’s Combat Zone–a thriving red-light district during the era Carney ’71 attended HLS–help differentiate Straw Man: A Profane Fable of the Harvard Law School from other books, such as The Paper Chase, that have propelled HLS to the forefront of popular culture. The frankly sexual aspect of the novel, like other incidents and characters in the book, reflects some truth about Carney’s time at HLS, with a heavy dose of satire, he said.
“We’ve seen the typical rendering of the first year at Harvard Law School,” said Carney. “I try something a little different, a little offbeat–the underside of the first year.”
Carney’s second novel features two main characters who room together during their first year: Thomas Galligan, a working-class white man from the Pacific Northwest who yearns to fit in at HLS; and Phillip Anchorage, a charming British dandy and son of an earl, who is one of the few black students at HLS. They romp through a novel filled with comic interludes, most memorably involving two visiting Yale Law School students, Clarence and Willie, who are uncannily similar to a current Supreme Court justice and a recent president. “A couple of horndogs from New Haven, which is not entirely inconsistent with what we’ve seen,” said Carney.
Yet the novel also examines serious issues of identity and belonging, and reveals what Carney calls “the myth of the meritocracy” with one character whose credentials as a student quickly unravel. The author based that character and the premise of the book on a former classmate, a purported Rhodes scholar and star college football player who was exposed as a fraud.
“That certainly put the lie to the notion that the admissions system was foolproof and tamperproof,” said Carney. “Even though he faked his way in, he seemed to do OK, and that’s the part that really got me.”
As a student, Carney grappled with many of the same issues that arise in his book, including fear of being drafted to fight in Vietnam and the challenge of being one of the few black students at the institution. His first novel, Swiss Movement, centers on the struggles facing a black lawyer, which Carney experienced as the first black attorney at Cravath, Swaine & Moore, and later with Debevoise & Plimpton, where one attorney refused to talk to him because of his race. Carrying the burden of a trailblazer, Carney was offered a job at a firm in Chicago (his hometown) with the enticement “How’d you like to be the first black lawyer in the firm?” His reply: “I’d rather be the second.”
Carney currently serves as of counsel with Burak Anderson & Melloni in Burlington, Vt., and prefers the calmer pace of law practice in a small city. He has combined legal work with writing since the 1980s, often rising at 3:30 a.m. to write a column or portions of his novel. Several of his fellow alumni have read Straw Man and have offered their praise for a book that Carney hopes “will provide a pleasant diversion and entertainment and a message that can be taken away when one is done.”
“There’s an element of seriousness to it underneath the fun,” he said. “The notion that one must be well trained in order to succeed at something is just not true in all cases. There are certain individuals who are inherently very different, and we don’t know why. I would hope that the reader would find some food for thought when all the hurly-burly’s done.”
Straw Man is available from Xlibris Corporation (1-888-7-XLIBRIS or www.Xlibris.com).