Author: Peter Benchley
Simon Chase is struggling to maintain his new oceanographic institute perched on a precarious island just off the Connecticut shore. He’s making a new start, sans his society wife and his son. His biggest foes appear to be local fisherman and a mounting pile of debt, but when a Great White he has been tracking starts appearing with strange claw wounds just as some local fisherman mysteriously disappear, he begins to suspect that the quiet swells hide something far more deadly. Simon’s focus soon shifts, however, when a new, wealthy patron arrives to do some on site, underwater filming with seals, potentially opening a financial door to save the faltering institute. His twelve year-old son also arrives on the island at the same time, ready to meet and bond with his removed father. And that’s when a horror half a century in the making slowly awakens and evolves. Throw in a corrupt mayor, some startling but unclear footage, and sea swells full of dismembered marine life, and you have another “what lurks beneath the waves” tale from Peter Benchley, author of the cultural icon Jaws.
Buried in an eBay mixed lot, I pushed White Shark onto my current reading list when I noted the author. Jaws is a novel of riveting power – more than just a creature feature with some beach-time gore. Benchley goes beyond, examining the humanity of mistakes, the corruption of backroom deals, the elevation of money over life, and the very human failings of alcoholism and revenge. There is a reason this book evolved into the classic movie of the same name and a reason that all these decades later it’s still a house-hold name. Sadly, White Shark doesn’t follow in its footsteps. Here, we have a bizarre combination of mad Nazi scientists and a gore guzzling (albeit mostly absentee) creature, crippled by long expanses of insipid filler and moody illusions to Benchley’s blockbuster hit.
Once again, we have a beach-front town, the typical feeble minded tourists with their near misses milling about on supposedly peaceful beaches. Early on it’s evident that there is some sort of problem; the mayor, not compelled by the mob (as in Jaws) is simply interested in his profit and willfully ignores the signs and Simon’s pleas. Here, the story is a simulacrum of Jaws – the basic formula crudely propped up, expecting us to run with it because Benchley’s epic story used a similar premise but was much more thoughtful and purposeful about it. Did I mention that there is also a Great White in White Shark that is named Jaws?
From here, though, the story diverges. In the beginning we are jettisoned back to WWII and a tense moment on a submarine full of crazed Nazi’s carrying some sort of super weapon. The submarine, however, sinks and with it the strange metal box. Fast-forward fifty odd years and you have some divers and the predictable monster-is-finally-out-of-the-cage moment. It’s not until the very end that we truly understand what the monster is and can start to visualize it. Even then its murky, a creature that rarely appears as the narrative, fast at the start, slows into a meandering, lost grind. Toward the ending, the pace goes from sluggish to erratic, uncontrolled, finally ending in a dissatisfying heap – a throw away, forget-you-ever-read it disappointment.
The Nazis, the war, it’s all explained but briefly, with a character conveniently appearing at the end (and being easily trusted) to explain everything. The build to the mystery, the Mengle-esque experiments, the creature’s meanings for both science and history are all rushed and epically implausible, even for a B-horror movie type of book. I’ll still try other Benchley books with the hope that another Jaws is somewhere in the collection. This book though – it’s a throwaway.
– Frances Carden
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