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May 12, 1981 - Image 9

Resource type:
Text
Publication:
Michigan Daily, 1981-05-12

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Arts
Tuesday, May 12, 1981

The Michigdn Daily

Page 9

St.
By FRED SCHILL
The most remarkable thing about
Trial and Error is that it could have
failed in a staggering number of ways,
yet somehow eluded them all. The story
of the rise of the Tomkins and Prosser
law firm from obscurity to respec-
tability doesn't sound very interesting
at all, especially when one finds that it
was written by attorney D. Michael
Tomkins.
Yet it is an amusingly improbable
story that grows in the telling, avoiding
all of the expected pitfalls. It could have
failed by drowning in its own legalisms,
but instead edifies even the most un-
willing on standard practices and
problems of the law profession. It could
have asphyxiated on the dry prose one
would expect from a lawyer, but
Tomkins perversely skewers such pre-
conceptions. Perhaps worst of all, it
could have easily overdosed on febrile,
amateurish attempts to manufacture
hilarity, but instead reveals an ad- t
mirably instinctive feel for the
humorous aspects of any given
situation.
Tomkins has quite glibly spun a half-
memoir, half case study tale of the
humorous intrigues of a wet-behind-
the-ears, unconventional lawyer
scurring for position in a conventional
profession, simultaneously capturing
the reader in a web of sticky legal and
ethical issues. It is an enviable feat;
better yet, its a hell of a lot of fun.
The tale begins when Tomkins, lonely
and disenchanted with the cold law fir-
ms who are showing increasing disin-
terest in him, decides the time is ripe to
find a companion to share his successes
and failures with equal understanding.
Enter Prosser, a gangly, rapidly-
expanding marvel of a Saint Bernard,
so named because his first meal with
his new owner is Tomkins' copy of the
famous law text Prosser on Torts.
THEN BEGINS a daily routine of
walking Prosser through an extended
tour of the neighborhood that, given
Prosser's size and friendly disposition,
naturally attracts attention from other
pedestrians. Some of them have legal
problems.
So Tomkins shrewdly sets up shop in
a $75-a-month travesty of an office,
decorated in "tasteful poor"-and con-
veniently located next door to a legal
referreal service. With his dog-walking
acquaintances and some unfortunate
friends as a base, Tomkins begins a
long rise to relative prosperity (defined
as feeding himself, a secretary, an
acquired employee with a peculiar zest
for research, and the 200-pound
Prosser).

T
"m
ri
cas
Th
pro
he
wo
spa
sen
iv

TOMKINS''TRIAL AND ERROR'
Bernards and lawyers
acquired a shrewd and knowledgeable, SIMILARLY, Tomkins' account of
but distinctly matronly, secretary in- how he spared a doddering and
stead of the chirpy, mallable Bright distrustful old lady from losing her
Young Thing he had envisioned, and his license is hilarious-just only until vet-
burgeoning romance with - who else? erinarian Janet angrily demands to
- Prosser's veterinarian. know how he could allow a dangerous
Stuffed between and sometimes in- old woman to continue prowling the
termingled with his court cases, these neighborhood in a vehicle she obviously
personalities serve as a kind of ethical can no longer control. There's that
touchstone for Tomkins, all the more so balance or moral issues at work; the
since they are perenially on opposite woman needs to drive in order to get
sides of the fence. Using these groceries and continue to survive, but
established characters and his own she is also a danger to the well-being of
: droll commentary, Tomkins actually others. A tale that could have stopped
S i ' L , manages to focus the reader's attention at being another farcial old-folks story
on a host of moral dilemmas. Houdini becomes an issue.
himself would envy such sleight-of- It is Tomkins' refusal to allow us that
- Rhand; Trial and Error actually suc- distance between what we are laughing
D.dOWlibT0111 ceeds even when it isn't funny. at superficially and what we are really
It is not a great book by English 101 laughing at that makes this book more
standards - don't expect your kids to than a prolonged tall tale. Trial and
be studying it in high school - but its Error is not merely an exercise in
'he structureof this tale, based on technique is smooth and effective, and comic strip style, because it refuses us
ore or less" on Tomkins' actual it doesn't sidestep the issues. Willy the the comfortable out of separating style
bulations, is a series of selected child rapist could have been presented from content.
ea he taken on and struggles with. as a cartoon character, a caricature of This is an absorbing and amusing
ankfully, he seems devoid of a all that is repulsive in society. Tomkins' book, a book I literally read without
opensity for self-aggrandizement; portrayal of him as a disheveled, dum- putting down, but it is not pure
pompous asses who infest the legal py old codger who never hurts anybody escapism. There is much more to be
rld get theirs, but Tomkins does not until he drinks too much of "that white noted about it - like Tomkins' ability to
re his own moral Bobsey Twins, port wine" is disturbing and uncomfor- explain confusing legal procedures and
timentality and gullibility. table, because we are not allowed to fall terminology with a most unlawyerly
ENTANGLED WITH his in-court ac back on our standard explanation for degree of sententiousness and clarity -
ities are his versions of how he such unacceptable behavior. But it is this very structural craftiness
that makes it worth its $9.95 price.
You can read it and enjoy yourself,
you can laugh till your sides hurt at
times, but don't expect to skirt all of the
issues; society has to deal with the
child-raping Willies out there, and, as
Tomkins points out, we aren't doing it
now. If you prefer laughter without
periodic discomfort and form without
substance, let me suggest television.

CHIPMUNKS SELL OUT - RCA Re
an exclusive long-term contract by r
12th LP 'Urban Chipmunk' is sch
following last year's hit 'Chipmunk I
Billy Joel and Queen songs).

E
ords executives oversee the signing of
ecording artists The Chipmunks..Their
eduled for release later this month,
unk' (which included cover versions of

ec
Pt

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