Our book today is that toughest of tough sells, Jaws 2, the novelization of the 1978 sequel to Stephen Spielberg’s blockbuster hit Jaws, which in turn was based on Peter Benchley’s novel Jaws. It’s virtually impossible to convince anybody to even momentarily consider the possibility that Jaws 2 might be as good a movie as Jaws, and even that is a walk in the park compared to getting people to consider the novelization, especially since novelizations already have the stench of derivation heavy upon them (even though a handful in the last century have been quite good). And if that basic concept is a tough sell, how much tougher is the novelization of a movie like Jaws 2, which was legendary in the Hollywood of its day for the script-troubles that plagued it from Day 1? The film’s first two scripts were almost entire scrapped, several writers were fired or walked off in high dudgeon, and several potentially fascinating sub-plots were dropped (just as Spielberg dropped the adultery sub-plot from Benchley’s novel). The screenplay that was eventually sent to industry vet and champion hack Hank Searls for novelizing was by Howard Sackler and Dorothy Tristan – and since it wasn’t the screenplay that eventually got shot for the movie, Searls’ book is significantly different from what movie-goers that summer were seeing in the nation’s theaters.
The movie, as noted elsewhere, is essentially a mystical drama about a supernatural shark who targets the town of Amity for revenge after the shark of the first movie got blown up. There’s no sub-plot: it’s just one long delectable shark-rampage. Not so in Searls’ novel, set two years after “the Trouble” at Amity, when the town is just trying to get back on its feat after becoming the shark attack capital of the universe. The town’s selectmen – led by crass Mayor Larry Vaughan – are hoping a proposed casino will revive Amity’s fortunes, although the plan’s propensity to draw the 1970s’ foremost land-predator – the mafia – has made the plan a sore subject for police chief Martin Brody, hero of “the Trouble” and Amity’s sole Good Man.
The Mob wants a piece of the new casino, and the cash-strapped town somewhat sheepishly doesn’t want to refuse. Also noted elsewhere: good mafia-writing in fiction is tough to come by – but Searls was a quintessential professional, always delivering smart, well-researched, and quietly plausible goods on time and on word count, and his main mob character here, a fat, shambling capo who’s been summering on Amity for three years and enjoys a kind of wary truce with Brody, ends up being very pleasingly three-dimensional, as do most of the character in the book. Even Searls’ throwaway scene-descriptions have a kind of sparse beauty:
He looked out across Amity Sound. The sun was setting on his favorite view. The Cape Cod cottages, backed to the waters, had been built in the days when marine views were unimportant, when you always faced your house to the street. The sand on the flats glowed golden, blackened behind the hillocks with speeding shadows. The golden cross on the spire of St. Xavier’s, last point in town to see the sun, was getting its good-night kiss.
And throughout, Searls shows the screenplay-ready sharp, natural dialogue that made him a favorite with directors and stars in his now-forgotten heyday. When town selectman Tony Catsoulis offers Brody what might or might not be a carefully-planned bribe, the interplay is quick and rock-steady:
“You quit,” Tony agreed quickly, “we’ll put in Hendricks as police chief, and I’ll hire you.”
“As what? A night watchman?”
“Foreman, administrator, manager, you name it. As partner, when you get your general contractor’s ticket.”
He looked into Tony’s eyes. They seemed perfectly sincere. “Thanks,” he said, moved. “But I’m afraid not. No experience.”
“You make $7,200 now. I’d start you at $15.”
“Fifteen thousand. Eighteen? I don’t give a damn.”
Brody stared. His heart began to pump. He saw a Kenmore dishwasher, a TV they didn’t have to squint at, and Mike at Yale … Well, NYU. He cleared his throat.
Tony shrugged. “You don’t steal.”
“Is that worth twice what I’m getting?”
“Everybody knows you don’t. That’s what’s worth it.”
The mob’s presence in Amity is subtle and largely invisible – just as the shark is, this time around. The enormous, marauding beast (in the novel, it’s not malevolent, just pregnant and therefore crazed by hunger into taking outlandish risks) is responsible for a good half-dozen disasters and fatalities of one kind or another, but none says “shark” but the last one, so the town (and Brody) are allowed to look the other way and hope for any other explanation in the world. The suspension of revelation is in itself a neat thrill, expertly exploited by our author.
So I recommend it, dammit! I recommend the novelization of Jaws 2, not just because it’s the Harry Searls novel you’re by far most likely to come across at your local Book Shack, but also in its own right, as a taut, involving novel a good many far more pretentious novelists (Benchley post-Jaws most certainly included) couldn’t write if their lives depended on it. If you find a copy, buy it and read it – you’ll count it an afternoon well-spent.