By Chet Yarbrough
Written by: James J. Kaufman
Narration by: Joe Barrett
“Pay it forward” comes to mind in listening to “The Collectibles” by James J. Kaufman. “The Collectibles” is about a lawyer as morally perfect as Harper Lee’s Atticus Finch. Like Atticus, Kaufman’s character polishes the image of human beings. Not motivated by money, power, or prestige, Joe Hart chooses to be unique among his peers; in fact, unique among most human beings. Hart is orphaned as a child and loses his wife to an errant bullet as an adult. As a child Joe is mentored by his uncle, a revered small town fishing and hunting guide. Lessons learned in childhood teach Joe to become a person bereft of greed, hubris, or covetousness.
Hart joins the Navy and becomes a submarine commander. After leaving the Navy, he chooses to return to school to become a lawyer. Joe meets and marries the love of his life. As a lawyer, Joe creates a reputation consistent with lessons learned as a child. He represents clients who make life’s mistakes. However, Joe chooses clients based on his perception of an underlying character that belies their profligate errors.
To heal from the senseless murder of his wife, Joe retreats to the wilderness of his childhood. (This is sometime after America’s 2008 economic crisis.) A multi-state car dealer, Preston Wilson, is in the midst of a pending bankruptcy. Preston is searching for a lawyer that might help him avoid the loss of his businesses and accumulated fortune. After searching for a lawyer to help him restructure his business, he is told the best lawyer to help him is Joe Hart. In a Dickens-like coincidence, Preston had been saved from a camping accident by Joe and his uncle when he was eleven or twelve years old.
Preston tracks Joe down in the wilderness. Joe decides to help him based on three conditions. One, Preston is to tell him the whole truth of how he got into such a mess. Two, that he never lies to him. And three, that he agrees to do something for Joe in the future, when called upon. With fear of the third condition, Preston finally agrees.
The author of “The Collectibles” is a lawyer and former judge. His understanding of the profession is clearly revealed in how Joe attacks the bankruptcy process. Joe rises to the occasion with super-human energy and intelligence by preparing for a settlement out of court, protecting himself from lawsuits from a victimized wife, and injecting himself into the reorganization decisions of Preston’s auto dealerships.
Five more characters are introduced to the story; e.g. a Las Vegas gambler, a Las Vegas dancer, a mentally challenged dishwasher, a wood carpenter with early Alzheimer’s, and a manic-depressive. These five people are Joe Hart’s collectibles; i.e. people who have an underlying goodness that is missed by society. Preston Wilson becomes the sixth collectible. All are Joe’s friends. They are friends that in turns are useful and pleasant, as once described by Aristotle in “The Nicomachean Ethics”.
The end of the story offers truth about living a good life; part of which is to pay it forward. The competence and morality of Joe Hart is supernatural and the story is maudlin. However, to the extent human beings become more competent and moral, the world will be a better place.