What seems like years before has come back to haunt me. My final day at sixth form, and I was gifted Jaws, the novel from Peter Benchley, as a leavers gift. In the front, a transcription was left for me.
“”Ewan, this is the only book in the world that’s worse than the film. Try not to read it. I have 128 copies”. – M.D.”
How right he was.
Leafing through the first chapter of Jaws, it is not immediately clear what the problems are or where they lie. Benchley opens with some strong elements of tension. The unknowing horrors of the deep suddenly lurk on the shoreline, and the unlucky souls that find themselves face to face with the great white are brutally slain. Elements of the writing capture this brutality with succinct detail, a strong showing from Benchley, who’s writing soon begins to falter.
It is no fault but his own. He attempts to pool together narrative threads that the average reader will not care for. With his tale of the oversized shark a thoroughly entertaining bit of bloody drama, it is a shame that it does not take precedence. Instead, Ellen Brody and her relationship with Matt Hooper takes centre stage for much of the second part. Her sudden lust for him and his happenstance appearance in town has no solid beginning and a frustratingly open ending.
Chief Brody and his relationship with Hooper is based on a tension that implies Brody is aware of his wife’s affair. That is not the case, and Benchley neither has the confidence nor knowhow to incorporate this into his structure, one that tries to piece together every popular, iconoclastic attack it can think of. Corrupt governments, sex, allusions to drugs and the forthright responsibility of a hardworking cop in a sleepy, seaside town. It is all there, ripe for the taking, but is never presented as anything that can be tangibly or realistically connected.
Bless him for trying, though, he makes do with some decent dialogue from time to time. Soon it devolves into swearing and matter-of-fact points made by the ever-fleeting cast of characters. Some, such as Mayor Larry Vaughn, are shown to have some mysterious depth to them, but the lack of resolution is almost as frustrating as the lack of real prominence or interest the fear-inducing shark has.
It is not all bad, and aside from an ending that peters out and a second part that feels surplus to requirement, Benchley conducts many of his themes responsibly, just not with enough focus. The depth is there, but what good does it do when not connect to anything else? Sheer willpower alone is not enough to connect narratives, no matter how hard he tries. His shark is a MacGuffin for the affairs of Amity, a wrench in the crawling machine, a temporary shift in tone for the summer-surfing inhabitants. It doesn’t make much difference to them, or me.
“This made me think of grandad. He had his own teeth, often brushing vigorously in the kitchen sink amongst the pots and pans.” – M.D.