Success had brought him nothing but misery; he couldn’t handle it. Success had thrown him in the gutter
– The Testament, by John Grisham –
John Grisham’s 1999 novel The Testament begins with an elderly billionaire committing suicide. Moments before he kills himself he cancels his final will and testament that would have left his billions to three ex-wives and six children. He then signs a new handwritten will leaving all of his vast fortune to an illegitimate daughter. And surprise, surprise, that daughter Rachel Lane is a missionary living in the remote jungles of Brazil with an Indian tribe and nobody actually knows where that is.
The story grabbed hold of me from the start. Soon we are introduced to Nate O’Riley, the hero of this John Grisham story. This is one of my favorite books and Nate is a character I really like.
Deep down Nate’s a good man. He’s a successful man, a lawyer – of course he’s a lawyer, this is a John Grisham novel, and Grisham introduces him this way:
Nate O’Riley was a partner, a twenty-three-year man who was, at the moment, locked away in a rehab unit in the Blue Ridge Mountains west of D.C. In the past ten years, he had been a frequent visitor to rehab facilities, each time drying out, breaking habits, growing closer to a higher power, working on his tan and tennis game, and vowing to kick his addictions once and for all. And while he swore that each crash was the last one, the final descent to rock bottom, each was always followed by an even harder fall. Now, at the age of forty-eight, he was broke, twice divorced, and freshly indicted for income tax evasion. His future was anything but bright.
One of the reasons I like the book and the character so much is Nate’s embrace of this ‘adventure’ he embarks on to find Rachel Lane. It’s not some fictional fantasy adventure. It’s a real life type of journey from modern civilization into a part of the world where he finds the missionary living with a primitive culture from a thousand years ago.
As Nate’s search for Rachel starts out, he begins to look at his assignment as an adventure. His trip into the deepest part of the Pantanal, the jungles of Brazil, gets pretty wild with Nate facing death more than once.
Not long after his first brush with death –
Nate stood by the window and wondered exactly how it came to be that he was presently in the middle of the Brazilian outback on Christmas Eve in a smelly manger, sore and bruised, covered with the blood of a cow, listening to three men argue in a foreign tongue, lucky to be alive. There were no clear answers.
He has a job to do. He has a purpose. Still he’s battling his past, and he struggles to figure where his life is going when he returns to Washington, D.C.
Do any of us ever conquer our demons? Are we ever able to completely overcome the many weaknesses we’ve built up from childhood and carry through adulthood?
I can relate to Nate, not because I’m an alcoholic, but because I’ve experienced repeated attempts to overcome habits with failure after failure. Like Nate, I can easily ignore my weaknesses, and continue to stumble along, repeating the same actions, expecting a different outcome.
For me, there’s a great appreciation of Nate, the hero of the story, and his struggle to turn his life around.
The book has it’s humorous side too, sometimes presented while he’s on this adventure deep into the Brazilian Pantanal. Nate and his guide, Jevy make contact with the primitive Indian tribe –
They came to a gap in the trees and in a clearing were two canoes. . .
“Stay close,” Jevy warned as he switched gas tanks in the boat. Nate looked at him. Their eyes met, and Jevy nodded to the trees.
An Indian was watching them. A male, brown-skinned, bare-chested, with a straw skirt of some sort hanging from the waist, no visible weapon. . . . If he’d been holding a spear Nate would’ve surrendered without a word.
“Is he friendly?” he asked without taking his eyes off the man.
“I think so.”. . .
Jevy stepped off the boat. “He looks like a cannibal,” he whispered.
The attempt at humor didn’t work. . . .
There was a movement in the brush behind the Indian. Along the tree line, three of his tribesmen emerged, all mercifully weaponless. . . .
Speaking slowly, Jevy explained what they were up to, and asked to see their tribal leader. . . . The men huddled and talked grimly among themselves.
“Some want to eat us now,” Jevy said under his breath. “Some want to wait until tomorrow.”
Nate does find Rachel and she too is a hero of the story –
He admired her greatly. She was everything he wasn’t – strong and brave, grounded in faith, happy with simplicity, certain of her place in the world and the hereafter.
In his short time with Rachel, there’s the beginnings of change in his life, a spiritual renewal. She provides inspiration and encouragement to Nate, this missionary, this woman of great faith, at peace with her life, herself and her God.
It’s through the example of Rachel, her faith, the Christian faith, centered on a Savior who has done it all, that gives Nate the source to find the ability to turn his life around. He finds a foundation and faith on which he is finally able to move forward and build a lasting recovery.
I share that same faith and trust in the Savior who I can turn to as I deal with overcoming my failures and weaknesses and the challenges life presents.
Yes, I know I’m a better person than I was 20 years ago. Working at being a good husband and father, just a better person in general, is a lifelong project that I believe never really ends for any of us. I know I still have a long way to go to become the person I’d like to be.
So I take inspiration from all kinds of places and one of those is the many heroes I’ve found in fiction.
Everything in the story doesn’t come to together perfectly. It’s not a completely
“happy ending” but it’s a good ending.
Still, through Nate and his story I am inspired to strive to “finish well.”
That’s a phrase I really like, finish well. We never stop learning, we never stop growing. As I look to God, the source of all wisdom and strength, I continue to move forward – and I hope to finish well.
“I have fought the good fight,
I have finished the course,
I have kept the faith.”
– 2 Timothy 4:7, the NIV Bible