A courtroom thriller dramatizes the battle between journalistic freedom and protections against libel.
Eddie Bennison’s rise from obscurity to fame as a professional golfer is as late as it is meteoric. Failing to make his high school team, he didn’t play seriously until he was in his 30s and working as a salesman for a container company. By the time he decided to make a career out of the sport, he was on the other side of 50 years old and eligible to play on the Senior PGA Golf Tour. But his first two seasons are as remarkable as his early life is inauspicious—he wins more than a dozen tournaments in two years, collecting millions in prize earnings and endorsements. Both his career and his reputation are threatened, though, when the leading golf magazine, Tee Time, runs a series of articles discussing rumors of Bennison’s reliance on performance-enhancing drugs and unfair tinkering with his golf clubs. As a result, he loses major endorsements, and the psychological strain of public mortification kills his game. Jacklin (Jacklin: My Autobiography, 2007, etc.) and Yastrow (Vision to Legacy, 2013, etc.) devote most of the novel to Bennison’s lawsuit for defamation against Tee Time and its publisher, brilliantly conducted by his lawyer, Charlie Mayfield, a man as talented as he is intimidating. But Mayfield has to contend with an unpleasant surprise—a woman accuses Bennison of sexually assaulting and beating her, testimony that could wreak havoc on the golfer’s popular appeal as a sports hero and “stereotypical” matinee idol.
The authors thoughtfully raise and wrestle with several serious issues: the legitimacy of performance-enhancing drugs in a professional sports world increasingly dominated by technology; the tension between a robust interpretation of the First Amendment and the damage done by recklessly sensationalist media; and the possibility that an accusation of a sexual crime is mendaciously driven by ulterior motives. Impressively, all of these matters are treated with delicacy and nuance, and none of them are considered at the expense of the tale’s dramatic power. The authors push the plot forward relentlessly, and the courtroom contest—especially Mayfield’s blistering interrogation of the reporter, Max Reed, who wrote the articles about Bennison—is captivating. In fact, the attorney becomes the most compelling character in the book—deviously smart but morally principled, he makes the case a referendum on journalistic malfeasance, encouraging the jury to make an example of Tee Time the industry can’t afford to ignore: “What amount of punitive damages would get their attention? What amount would they take seriously, and not shrug off as a nuisance?” If there’s one fictional failing, it’s the characterization of Reed. He’s too easy a target for Mayfield—the reporter’s boss calls him the “biggest boob since Humpty Dumpty”—since he’s astonishingly unprofessional, morally wayward, and easily disoriented under cross-examination. The lawyer’s gifts would shine even brighter if used against a more formidable opponent.
An engrossing legal tale woven with impressive intelligence.