Our book today is Peter Benchley’s 1974 mega-bestseller Jaws, which was flying out of bookstores even before it was turned into a damn fine movie and given one of the single most world-famous cover illustrations any book has ever carried.

The story is roughly the same: a great white shark homes in on the peaceful little summer vacation town of Amity and begins a pattern of tightly focused feeding on humans. The plot is just that simple: what happens if a shark decides to do that? And the gimmick driving the plot is equally simple: this great white shark is huge (and, in the book and even more in the movie, seems oddly bright, despite Benchley’s repeated scientific assurances throughout the novel that it’s a dumb creature of pure instinct).

The town elders of Amity don’t want to hurt their summer rentals by announcing the presence of a killer shark off their beaches, and at first they manage to convince Police Chief Brody not only to cover up the cause of the mysterious deaths cropping up offshore but also to keep the beaches open for swimmers. It’s only once the attacks continue that Brody is forced to act on his conscience, and Benchley does a very good job of portraying the way the tension begins to eat at Brody’s relationship with his wife Ellen:

“You’ll wake the children.”

“I don’t give a damn. I’m not going to let you stand there and work out your own hang-ups by telling me I’m a shit.”

Ellen smiled bitterly. “You see? There you go again.”

Where do I go again? What are you talking about?”

“I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Just like that. You don’t want to talk about it. Look … okay, I was wrong about the goddam meat. I shouldn’t have blown my stack. I’m sorry. Now …”

“I said I don’t want to talk about it!”

Brody was ready for a fight, but he backed off, sober enough to realize that his only weapons were cruelty and innuendo, and that Ellen was close to tears. And tears, whether shed in orgasm or in anger, disconcerted him. So he said only, “Well, I’m sorry about that.” He walked out of the kitchen and climbed the stairs.

In the bedroom, as he was undressing, the thought occurred to him that the cause of all the unpleasantness, the source of the whole mess, was a fish: a mindless beast that he had never seen. The ludicrousness of the thought made him smile.

He crawled into bed and, almost simultaneous with the touch of his head to the pillow, fell into a dreamless sleep.

In the novel, the town hires the crusty old shark-catcher Quint to deal with the problem, and Brody brings in Matt Hooper, whose brother used to date Ellen years ago in her life before she married Brody (a life she looks upon wistfully even while she chastises herself for doing so). Quint is as pure and simple a predator as the fish he’s chasing, and Hooper has predatory designs of his own – on Ellen Brody. One of the notes Benchley strikes over and over throughout the book is that the “great fish” marauding out in the ocean is just a cleaner, more honest physical manifestation of the kind of cold-blooded hunting that goes on everywhere. Jaws is thickly populated by sharks – and only one of them lives in the ocean.

Benchley, a life-long ocean-goer and frequent visitor to Nantucket, fills his book unobtrusively but plentifully with shark-lore, and some of the most effective moments in Jaws are descriptions of the shark itself, its motions, its sensory world. This is a much, much stronger novel than it’s usually given credit for being – not only Benchley’s masterpiece but a fine addition to the ‘men and the sea’ sub-genre whose Everest is Moby Dick.

I’ve recommended Jaws to countless people, and doubtless I’ve personally given a copy to many of you reading this. If so (and even if not), you’ll have heard me make one of my favorite points about the book: there are many scenes in it that are not only superior to anything found in the blockbuster movie but superior to anything that could be filmed. There are dreads, agonies, and swift little moments that defy cinematography – but good, lean prose can capture them if it’s smart enough to know where they are.

Take the book’s opening scene. It’s the same as in the movie – a young man and woman go down to the beach in the hour before dawn, and she goes for an impromptu swim. Her strokes in the water attract the attention of the shark a hundred yards offshore, and it closes in on her movements. The movie harrowingly depicts her death-agonies, because that’s what it can show us. In the novel, there’s no such struggle – she feels a sharp tug on her leg, reaches down with groping fingers in the dark water and feels that her foot is missing, that bone is protruding (pain hasn’t hit her yet). She screams, but in the next instant the shark catapults up from directly beneath her and instantly destroys her with a couple of enormous bites.

But the genius of the scene is in the delicate moment right before this:

The fish closed on the woman and hurtled past, a dozen feet to the side and six feet below the surface. The woman felt only a wave of pressure that seemed to lift her up in the water and ease her down again. She stopped swimming and held her breath. Feeling nothing further, she resumed her lurching stroke.

The fish smelled her now, and the vibrations – erratic and sharp – signaled distress. The fish began to circle close to the surface. Its dorsal fin broke water, and its tail, thrashing back and forth, cut the glassy surface with a hiss. A series of tremors shook its body.

For the first time, the woman felt fear, though she did not know why. Adrenaline shot through her trunk and her limbs, generating a tingling heat and urging her to swim faster. She guessed that she was fifty yards from shore. She could see the line of white foam where the waves broke on the beach. She saw the lights in the house, and for a comforting moment, she thought she saw someone pass by one of the windows.

Putting us so heartbreakingly inside her head in the moments before she dies (or letting us hear Brody’s mirthless, contradictory little chuckle in his bedroom alone) – is something Benchley the novelist can do – and does often in Jaws – that no movie director can duplicate or would want to. Its a good reason to find a 20 cent thrift store copy of Jaws and give yourself a good afternoon’s read. Given the recent world-wide rise in shark attacks, you’d be crazy to go swimming in the ocean anyway … so why not enjoy yourself on land?

  • David Michael

    It would never have even occurred to me to read Jaws, even though I loved the movie. I think I may actually pick up a copy one of these days.

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