Oprah Winfrey goofed when she picked James Frey's A Million Little Pieces for her book club. If she'd wanted to feature a true-crime "memoir" written as if by a pathological liar on acid, she could have done no better than select A Fool's Gold by Portland author and erstwhile lawyer Bill Merritt. The difference is, Merritt's convoluted tale of lost treasure, found marijuana and legal shenanigans on the Oregon coast is so patently outrageous, so deliriously funny, so rich in detail it might just be true.
Either way, Merritt evokes both his oddball characters and their idyllic Oregon setting brilliantly. After earning a law degree from Lewis & Clark College, Merritt goes to work for a rotund, bourbon-swilling attorney-at-law named Thaddeus Silk. Within a few months, Silk is found dead in his office of a heart attack, and Merritt is left to pick up the pieces of his late mentor's haphazard practice. Heading the list of colorful clients Merritt inherits is Abby Birdsong, an aging ex-hippie who's arrested at Rooster Rock State Park with two and half pounds of pot in her possession, and Grady Jackson, a possibly delusional treasure hunter suspected of stealing buried loot from Neahkahnie Beach.
What makes A Fool's Gold so priceless is Merritt's hopelessness in the face of his loopy clients: How do you defend a woman who carries a straw bag that dribbles marijuana seeds wherever she goes, or an old coot who babbles how clues to the treasure he seeks can be found in the Bible? Incredibly, Merritt manages to get Abby acquitted on the drug charges, but publicity about the rookie lawyer's courtroom coup backfires and Abby is arrested for another marijuana stash—this time weighing four and half tons. Meanwhile, Grady is indicted for the theft of a medieval-looking gold chain he insists was a gift from the king of Saudi Arabia. Adding to the mystery, Merritt discovers that both cases may be linked to a mysterious nighttime shootout with drug smugglers on Neahkahnie Beach 10 years earlier. Just when you think A Fool's Gold can't get any weirder, the two court cases are resolved, and the truth—or at least Merritt's best approximation of it—begins to emerge. Merritt's madcap style—an unlikely cross between Vincent Bugliosi and Ken Kesey—makes the payoff well worth the ride.
Bill Merritt appears at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-4651. 7:30 pm Friday, Feb. 3. Free.