Our book today is the 1976 novel The Deep, and it’s the answer to a question several of you have emailed me (because Gawd forbid any of you shy little buggers should, you know, post a comment or anything)(this has got to be the strangest blogger/reader relationship I know of – par for the course in my life, actually): did Peter Benchley ever write anything worth reading other than Jaws?
The answer is problematic, and it connects with a long-held belief of mine, which is that novelists very, very often write more than is good for them. I firmly believe that virtually everybody has one genuinely good book inside them, and I love the fact that typing, editing, and even publishing technology has become so easy and ubiquitous that hundreds of thousands more people than in, say, the 1960s can go a lot further toward actually writing that book than they could at any other time in history. Writing schools abound, writing groups populate the back booths of every Bickford’s and Denny’s from here to Costa Mesa, and of course the entire Internet is one gigantic, horrifyingly diverse exercise in writing. The making of many books has never been easier, and that’s a good thing.
The problem is – and always has been, even before FicPro 2000 and the like – that once somebody actually writes a book, two powerful factors often propel them to write another. The first of these factors is inborn and intangible, but that doesn’t necessarily make it right: it’s intoxicating. Creating a fictional world, shaping it, populating it, driving that population – it’s hard to explain to somebody who hasn’t done it, but everybody who has done it will understand immediately. Crafting that creation, going inside it day after day, gradually orchestrating it to tell the stories you want it to tell, and then, when you’re finished, writing ‘the end’ … well, as difficult as it’ll be for you non-writers to believe, there’s really no feeling in the world that’s sweeter. Once you do it, you very much want to do it again – whether you have the inspiration, industry, or information to make it work a second (or twenty-second) time.
The second factor is crass and therefore well-known: if you make money writing a novel, chances are very good you’ll want to make even more money writing a second, and a third. Writers have often been contractually obligated to keep writing, even though, in my opinion, 99 percent of writers don’t have much more than one worthwhile book inside them. Generally, that’s the fiction math: one book that’s wholly yours, irresistibly burning inside you to get out, to be expressed, and then maybe 20 percent material overspill that can, if stretched and fluffed, be made into a second novel that will more or less stand upright. Usually, everything else is dry humping.
There are exceptions, of course – probably you’re thinking of the same exceptions I am. But keep in mind, if you can (and let’s be honest here: I’m probably in a better position to do that than most of you are), the absolutely VAST amount of novels that have been published in the last 200 years. The number beggars description; trust me, the exceptions we’re thinking of sink into that sea without even the smallest ripple. For every Tolstoy writing both War and Peace and Anna Karenina, there are, without exaggeration, 4 or 5 million one-hit wonders grinding out their fifteenth soulless book.
Benchley’s fiction-writing career is a pretty close example of what I’m talking about. In Jaws he found his one perfect idea and knocked it out of the park – a giant killer shark preys on a popular beachfront community, thereby unleashing all kinds of predation between the humans involved. Almost everything he wrote after that book feels grasping, attenuated, and incomplete.
Almost everything. He, too, had that roughly 20 percent overspill, and he used it to craft an older manuscript into the adventure novel called The Deep, which is the only one of his novels other than Jaws that’s worth reading. It’s the story of a honeymooning couple in Bermuda – David Sanders and his much younger wife Gail, who while scuba-diving come across the wreck of a reef-torn ship and find not only WWII-era ampules of some sort of drug but also much, much older artifacts. Wondering what exactly it is they’ve found, they’re directed by helpful locals to crusty old lighthouse keeper Romer Treece, who comes off as a slightly more eloquent version of Captain Quint:
The bottom of the sea is a living creature. She’s whimsical, the sea, a tease. She loves to fool you. She changes all the time. A storm can alter her face; a change in current can cause her to heave her insides out. You can dive on a wreck one day and find nothing. The wind blows that night, and the next day, in the same spot, you find a carpet of gold coins. That’s happened. And we’ve had four juicy blowups in the past six weeks.
But whatever native strength Benchley had as a storyteller is already beginning to weaken in this book, and the narrative quickly crowds up with predictability, including a slick villain – Henri Cloche – who sounds like he’s reading his dialogue straight out of an old MGM handbook:
“They [the couple’s motorbikes] will be returned in the morning. A final word: Make no mistake about it – should you still be inclined to be … hasty … and go to the authorities, you will find that, officially, I do not exist. And should you try to get out of this by leaving Bermuda, you will also discover that, in reality, I exist everywhere.” His back stiffened. “There will be no haven.”
What he wants Sanders and his wife to do, Mr. Bond, is dive … dive the wreck and recover as much of its cargo as possible, for which service he will pay them one million dollars (which was a lot of money back then, as they say). You can probably guess the rest yourself, but the key here is to remember that all the movies and TV shows and Scott Smith novels this plot reminds you of came from this book, not the other way around. The plot itself – innocents find something deadly in a shipwreck and become morally compromised by it – is rock-solid. It’s only Benchley’s ability to fully exploit it as a writer that’s flagging just a bit.
Just a bit. The Deep will still work on you – it’s sharply, leanly told, and it will pull you in, and you’ll be glad you gave it the lazy afternoon it takes to read it (like Jaws, it’s very much a book you should read in one sitting). It’s fathoms and fathoms better than all of Benchley’s later books (they at best have only scattered worthwhile scenes, and sometimes only scattered worthwhile moments) – but it’s no Anna Karenina, alas.