By James Patterson and Howard Roughan
Little, Brown, 2008
James Patterson has written thirty-one novels in his career, and virtually every one of them has lodged for at least a few weeks on every bestseller list in the world. He’s co-written eighteen novels, including this latest one Sail, which he wrote with Howard Roughan. On the cover of the books he co-writes, his collaborators’ names appear in font-size very nearly as big as that of his own. On the title page of those books, the names are identically printed. In interviews, Patterson has freely admitted that sometimes his collaborators do, shall we say, more than exactly half the work of producing the book. I’d say that goes a long way toward making him not only the most honest man on the bestseller list but the most honest person who’s ever been on such a list.
He stops just short of admitting that he’s turning out bars of soap, and why shouldn’t he admit it (and, prince that he evidently is, share the bounty)? After all, there’s no danger of his being exposed – his readers can see those collaborators’ names as easily as glancing at the dust jackets; and even if they couldn’t, it wouldn’t matter: they buy the novels like they were soap, sight unseen, by the pallet.
In that sense it’s pointless even to talk about plots or the like – except that these are technically books, and what their millions of consumers are technically doing with them every year is technically reading.
And it’s not like it takes long! The Dunne family – Manhattan heart surgeon Katherine (whose husband Stuart died in a mysterious diving accident in the presence of his mistress), her 18-year-old troubled, bulimic daughter Carrie, her 16-year-old ne’er-do-well stoner son Mark, her spunky, punchline-spouting 10-year-old son Ernie, and strapping Jake, Katherine’s former brother-in-law – go on a sailing trip in a last-ditch effort to knit their relationships back together. And it’s hardly an exaggeration to say you can guess the rest. 388 pages, 123 chapters, but that’s no lie: you can guess pretty much every single thing that happens for the rest of the book.
All that remains is marching through the writing. Whether Patterson’s working alone or in company, the prose is as murderous as any a teenage girl could scribble in her diary:
The last time Jake had the ear-numbing pleasure of their [the Dunne children's] company was when Katherine remarried, eleven months ago on Cape Cod, at the ritzy Chatham Bars Inn. At least she had looked happy with Peter Carlyle – radiant, actually – but for that entire weekend it seemed as if the only thing Carrie, Mark, and Ernie Dunne could do was argue with each other.
It didn’t seem that way. It was that way.
Patterson didn’t get where he is today by trusting his readers, and either he’s taught that lesson to his collaborators or else he picks them because they don’t trust readers either. In any case, they use their words like bludgeons, always to comical effect, as when studly Jake rescues winsome Carrie after she throws herself from the ship in a fit of pique:
“Carrie, I’ve got you. Just relax,” urged Jake, trying to sound calm against her panic.
That’s what this is, isn’t it? he thought. Carrie was still panicked from almost drowning. She was scared to death – literally.
That’s the way we do things in a Patterson production: in order to make sure we know that a character has nearly died, we’re just up and told the character did die (the alternative of course being that neither Patterson nor Roughan grasps what ‘literally’ means – not a categorical impossibility in this day and age, but both of them?). Likewise if a character gets roughed up, it’s best to have them go into all the details themselves, even if they’re a little preoccupied at the time, like poor Katherine here doing primary diagnostics while being blown overboard:
The first thing I’m aware of is the intense heat, red-hot. It scalds my hair and skin as I tumble through the air. Everything about this is unreal. I’m on fire!
And it only gets worse when I hit the water.
Because I don’t hit the water.
Instead I come crashing down on a jagged piece of hull that, like everything else, has been sent hurtling from the boat, or what used to be known as the boat.
Snap! goes my right shinbone. I know exactly what’s happened. I can literally feel it burst through my skin.
As I roll off the piece of the hull and into the water, my body immediately goes into shock.
Still, as long as Patterson knows how to string together breathless schlock, as long as he knows how to spot or teach that talent, and as long as all the authors involved can find their CAPS LOCK key, these book-like things will keep rolling off their assembly-line and into millions of homes, to have their words looked at by millions of people who’ll find themselves caught up in frenzied endings as exciting and mathematical and mindless as one of those softball-pitching machines at the batting cages:
Ellen jabbed her Glock straight at his chest. “LAST WARNING!” she yelled. “TAKE ONE MORE STEP AND YOU’RE DEAD!”
It wasn’t just one step that Devoux took. Behind a deathwish laugh, he suddenly lunged for Ellen, his arms extended for her gun.
Ellen pumped a shot into his chest. The crowd of onlookers screamed with fear. Several of them began to run away.
Devoux staggered backwards, his legs buckling. But they didn’t quite fold.
He should have been flat on his back, dead as disco. Instead the son of a bitch was still standing! Worse, he was coming for her again! He had a switchblade knife from somewhere.
Amanda Bragg is a florist living in Baton Rouge. This is her second piece for Open Letters.