Written by: James Keen
“…Once upon a time there was a shark that ate people…” -‘Jaws’.
Next year, specifically February of 2014 will be the forty year anniversary of Peter Benchley’s best-selling novel ‘Jaws’, a book with a narrative that concerns itself with the efforts of a small island community to catch and kill a great white shark that has been gobbling up some of its residents. It’s now become an overly familiar yarn and a formula that has been repeated in other iterations of the horror genre. This is perhaps more of a thriller in terms of its execution with infrequent descriptions of the shark’s terrible antics keeping the gore to a tantalizing minimum with the effect of upping the suspense.
Our principle ‘hero’, Martin Brody is a middle-aged police chief whose jurisdiction is the small Island of Amity, a municipality which depends on the Summer tourist trade to keep the residents off welfare stamps during the consecutive Winter. Brody is married, has three kids and is proud of the fact that there hasn’t been a fatality in Amity since 1957. His young wife, Ellen, though appears dissatisfied with her lot in life, yearning for something exciting or unexpected to occur. Brody is an interestingly flawed character but shares much in common with the other secondary characters here in that they are difficult for the reader to feel any sympathy for. We have the corpulent opportunistic Harry Meadows who runs the local rag, ‘The Amity Leader’, the sleazy ichthyologist Matt Hooper and the wholly self-obsessed Mayor of Amity with mafia-connected debt problems, Larry Vaughn. And of course there’s the transparently Melville-inspired ‘Quint’.
Benchley’s story begins well enough but quickly devolves into irritatingly familiar soap opera dynamics and melodramatic narrative set-pieces; the sexually frustrated housewife, the ‘heated’ cliched exchanges between the beleaguered police chief and Town Selectmen and there are set-pieces in the book which are so stilted and wooden that they leave the reader wondering why an editor wasn’t a little more aggressive in limiting the overall page count. For example, there’s a dinner get together that becomes interminable in length whose only function it seems is to list the amount of alcohol Brody can consume in only a few hours and a recounting of the recipe for ‘Butterfly’ lamb. Later on in the text there’s a cringe-inducing episode describing Ellen’s marital transgression that involves her rape ‘fantasies’.
‘Jaws’ is a surprisingly light read overall, in fact it’s the lack of any kind of discernable or meaningful subtext that is arguably its downfall. While Benchley’s descriptive abilities are perfectly serviceable when it comes to describing the shark and its environs, it’s when he shifts focus to his cast of characters that the narrative becomes embarrassingly simplistic. Brody at one asinine point in the text is described as being “…determined to deprive the fish of any more people…” Awkward chunks of the text further reveal the author’s limitations as a storyteller, “the past always seems better when you look back on it than it did at the time…”, “…she hated her life and hated herself for hating it…” and so on.
There’s a strong element of fear of many differing types running through the novel; Brody’s fear of his own fading virility, Ellen’s fear that she may have missed out on chances in her life to be happy, but curiously there’s very little fearful tension whenever the shark appears and this again is due in part to a lack of empathy with Benchey’s stiffly drawn characters. It should be pointed out that there’s a disturbing undercurrent of misogyny here along with racist and homophobic undertones that perhaps are in keeping with the spirit of the times in the early Seventies but it is worryingly significant throughout the novel.
It’s difficult to re-read this novel without having the movie version repeatedly pop into your imagination and that’s particularly damaging here as it highlights all the inherent problems in Benchley’s book and provides a stark and unfavorable contrast. It’s unfortunate the core text is so repulsively delineated as you simply don’t care about any of Benchley’s characters to the extent that at one point this reviewer wished the monstrously ‘intelligent’ shark would somehow manage to devour most of the principals here.
Order Jaws here.