Book Review: David Lat’s Supreme Ambitions

By Steve Klepper (Twitter: @MDAppeal)

David Lat of Above the Law was kind enough to send me an advance copy of his novel, Supreme Ambitions. I face a difficult task at the outset: Judge Richard Kopf’s review at Hercules and the Umpire covered most of the bases already. So much in fact that I encourage you to read his review first and to consider this post a follow-up in the same conversation.

To get the obligatory plot summary out the way, below is the book jacket summary from Amazon:

Supreme Ambitions details the rise of Audrey Coyne, a recent Yale Law School graduate who dreams of clerking for the U.S. Supreme Court someday. Audrey moves to California to clerk for Judge Christina Wong Stinson, a highly regarded appeals-court judge who is Audrey’s ticket to a Supreme Court clerkship. While working for the powerful and driven Judge Stinson, Audrey discovers that high ambitions come with a high price. Toss in some headline-making cases, a little romance, and a pesky judicial gossip blog, and you have a legal novel with the inside scoop you’d expect from the founder of Above the Law, one of the nation’s most widely read and influential legal websites.

Saying more risks spoilers. The plot has many twists and turns – some of them unexpected, some of them telegraphed, but, critically, all of them making narrative sense. Supreme Ambitions is a legitimate page-turner. Lat knows the story he wants to tell, and he tells it well. He makes no secret of the themes he wants to convey, and he conveys them effectively. Overall, it’s smashing success.

It’s a useful story, too. The American Bar Association is the publisher, and Lat’s book contains as much practical advice as any of the ABA’s treatises. Supreme Ambitions should be required reading for:

  1. all law students vying for clerkships with Supreme Court justices or their feeder judges;
  2. law students and appellate clerks consoling themselves after falling short in that task; and
  3. most importantly, anyone applying to law school because he or she wants one of those clerkships.

Given Lat’s vast contributions to online legal snark, I would be remiss if I wrote an uncritical review. The book has its flaws. Judge Kopf zeroes in on the most glaring issue: the novel’s dialogue. Judge Kopf softens the blow, finding that “Lat pens dialogue reasonably well for a first timer,” and reminding readers that “[g]ood dialogue is impossibly hard to write without years of practice.” True, but “first timer” is a low bar for dialogue.

I absolutely love that the ABA is publishing fiction. But the ABA, being new to the game, cannot give a new novelist the kind of editorial guidance that a major publishing house – with barriers to entry equivalent to vying for a Supreme Court clerkship – can provide.

There are two overarching issues with the dialogue. First, much of the dialogue is stilted. Far too often, characters talk in complete, grammatically correct sentences that no person would speak aloud in real life. Certain extended exchanges read like a particularly well educated email chain or comment thread. Lat knows the problem, and I’m not telling him anything new. In Supreme Ambitions’ prior incarnation as an episodic web novel, Lat began the story with a mea culpa regarding his shortcomings as a writer. To Lat’s credit, the book drops the mea culpa, and Lat strives to do better. The easiest way to fix that issue in a (hopefully forthcoming) second novel would be for Lat to ask friends to read dialogue exchanges out loud with him, to gauge whether anyone would say each sentence out loud. It’s a long, frustrating process that, in the end, works wonders.

The second problem is trickier to fix. The subject material, by its nature, requires an unusually high amount of exposition. Lat’s solution, understandably, is for his characters to engage in conversations filled with information that, by all rights, could go unsaid between them. The exposition-heavy dialogue, combined with the short chapters, brought to mind an unkind comparison to The DaVinci Code. Unlike The DaVinci Code, though, I actually enjoyed Supreme Ambitions.

Indeed, a comparison of the female characters from Supreme Ambitions and The Da Vinci Code illustrates what I like best about Lat’s writing. In The Da Vinci Code, a white man fights to pay homage to the “sacred feminine,” and yet the only female main character, Sophie Neveu, serves as an empty vessel for Robert Langdon’s exposition.[1] Lat’s greatest strength, which he honed in his Underneath Their Robes blog, is his ability to write well-rounded, believable female characters.

Supreme Ambitions passes the Bechdel test with flying colors. Lat’s four most interesting characters (Audrey Coyne, Judge Stinson, Harvetta Chambers, and Lucia Aroldi) are all women. His most successful chapters (Chapters 24 and 40) feature the outside-chambers scenes between Audrey Coyne and Judge Stinson. These scenes feature natural, character-driven dialogue and highlight Lat’s central themes of power and privilege.[2]

Showcasing his room for improvement, Lat becomes a better writer as the book moves along. Lat’s sense of humor, which has brought him so much success in blogging, doesn’t shine through until the book’s final act. To my surprise, I had to wait until the final line of Chapter 40 to laugh out loud. Just as in his blogging, Lat is at his best when he provokes thoughtful laughter. Lat’s irreverence comes from a deep reverence for the rule of law. He wouldn’t know so much about the federal judiciary if he didn’t take it so seriously. Combine that knowledge with a preternatural sense of the absurd, and you get one of the most entertaining legal writers in the business.

Well done, David Lat. Well done, ABA. Now everyone: go pre-order the book.

[1] Neveu’s two defining traits were paradoxical: (a) she was French; but (b) she was scarred for life when she walked in on her grandfather having freaky sex.

[2] If Lat wants inspiration for better dialogue, I’d recommend careful viewings of Recount, HBO’s dramatization of Bush v. Gore. Danny “Jonathan from Buffy” Strong, screenwriter for Recount and Game Change, has emerged as the master of conveying dense, legalistic subject matter through dialogue. In fact, in researching this endnote, I discovered that Strong was hired as the screenwriter for the forthcoming The Da Vinci Code sequel, which I do not plan to view or review.

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