Chad Zunker’s latest novel is akin to John Grisham’s “The Street Lawyer” as the Austin author wraps a thought-provoking legal thriller around the American homeless crisis.
Big-hearted protagonist David Adams grew up in poverty but graduated with honors from Stanford Law. Hired by a power-broker law firm in Austin, he’d finally secured success and the wealth that would follow. But after a homeless man helps him uncover a conspiracy within the firm, Adams set out on his own.
Now, Adams primarily represents Austin’s homeless population. Before he’d died, the street preacher Benny had introduced Adams to men living in a homeless camp in the woods, and they’d become his friends. Doc, Bobby E. Lee, and LaRue comprise his “misfit legal team.” Former high school history teacher Doc is a “hell of a paralegal,” gifted in research. White-bearded Bobby E. Lee sits stoically in a Confederate uniform, guarding Adam’s office door and taking messages. The piano-playing kid LaRue canvasses the homeless population for information.
Adam’s clients can’t afford to pay much in fees, but he squeaks by, with his homeless friends assisting in his investigations. And it’s amazing how much the homeless observe, invisible to most people but always keeping a watchful eye.
Although normally handling routine misdemeanors, Doc asks Adams to represent Rebel, a 37-year-old mentally ill drifter accused of murdering an assistant district attorney. Although Rebel swears he didn’t commit the crime, Adams isn’t sure how he can afford to take the case—he’s so broke he lives on the couch in his tiny office, his practice on the verge of bankruptcy, and the victim is Adam’s close friend from law school.
But the more he talks to Rebel, the more he believes the man is innocent. As evidence against his client mounts, Adams is convinced things aren’t what they seem. He discovers that local government is manipulating the investigation, and he struggles to gather evidence before more deaths occur, including Rebel’s. Can Adams and his unlikely legal team of Austin’s homeless uncover the conspiracy in play?
Zunker’s intimate relationship with the homeless population in Austin inspires his novels. Along with Adams, we dive into the crisis of American homelessness, gaining a new outlook on the plight of the street population trying to survive each day. Zunker forces us to consider—what would we do if we had no shelter, food, job, or family?
It’s personal for Zunker, who has entered situations where he thought “he was there to rescue the vulnerable only to realize the vulnerable were rescuing him right back.” The pioneering Austin-based nonprofit that serves the chronically homeless called Mobile Loaves & Fishes, and its dynamic leader, Alan Graham, have changed Zunker’s life and his understanding of what success really means.
“Before Alan took me to a camp of homeless people in the woods, I was trotting down a traditional path toward what I thought would make me happy,” says Zunker. “But walking alongside so many of my struggling street brothers, I found a deep level of meaning and satisfaction which changed my idea of success.” Zunker realized it had more to do with real-life relationships and the impact he could have on others—especially with those who are truly vulnerable.
Over the next ten years, he and his wife committed their lives to helping realize Alan Graham’s dream of creating a master-planned community “where we could lift our brothers off the streets and offer them the support system they need to heal, be restored, and find dignified ways to earn an income.” They went on to celebrate the opening of Community First! Village, a 51-acre master planned community that gives its residents purpose, relationships, family, community, and independence, and is a model for other cities.
For readers who love legal thrillers woven into important social messages, “An Unequal Defense” will not disappoint. And just like David Adams, maybe this story will expand your outlook and change your perspective.
Cover photo courtesy Chad Zunker
K.L. Romo writes about life on the fringe: teetering dangerously on the edge is more interesting than standing safely in the middle. She is passionate about women’s issues, loves noisy clocks and fuzzy blankets, but HATES the word normal. Visit Romo @klromo on Twitter, and @k.l.romo on Instagram.