This doesn't make it a bad work. On the contrary, this is a best seller for good reason, but when the domestic trials of the police chief and the financial woes of the mayor and newspaper publisher drive into full force throughout the middle of the book, it's almost easy to forget there's a shark threat at all.
The Long Island town of Amity makes all its annual income from vacationers during the summer, and its denizens protect their summer dollars like there's no tomorrow, because when winter hits, there might not be.
And then he came... the giant shark.
Enter Police Chief Martin Brody and Amity Lifer who married one of the Summer Folk visitors, Ellen. When the Shark starts to Attack he vows to keep the people safe by closing the beaches. Unfortunately those holding the money keep reopening them until it's too late, and Sharky-Boy is downing the delicacy known as "Human" like he's in on his own island buffet.
The terror of the Predator is made more fascinating by Benchley's erstwhile narration from the Shark's cold and hungry point of view. Because of this and the true desperation that Benchley conveys so well in the hearts of the townspeople, the tension can be cut with a tooth.
But just as things seem most desperate, Jaws becomes a bit of a soap opera beginning when Ichthyologist Matt Hooper's presence begins to cause tension in the Brody's marriage. For most of the middle of the novel this and other more secular concerns dominate, and the Shark patiently waits for Benchley to get back on topic.
Of course Hindsight is 20/20, and there was no Jaws movie yet to see how a tight and stressed story can become so incredibly good. Looking back, though it almost feels like Benchley felt like he didn't have enough, so he took a page from Mrs. Paul or the Gorton's Fisherman and breaded out his Fish Filet in book form into the full-lengther we read today. Crazily enough, when these sub plots no longer serve their respective purposes they're dropped or literally written off in the final act.
But what a final act it is! Hoo-boy and Hully Gee! If you think that seeing the movie can prepare you for this, you're wrong. The entire story of Sea Captain Quint is as different here as grapes are from bullets and the war with the shark takes days and days, not one quick expedition. It's a hell of a thrill ride and worth every second of the novel. It just takes some time to get there.
Clearly, though, Benchley's Jaws is never boring, even in that middle section when the Shark takes the back seat on the bus! It might not be "Scary" or "Action Packed" like the movie, but it's certainly interesting, at least in a guilty pleasure sort of way. And while Benchley is no Poet Laurelate, he's no slouch at the prose, either and is able to craft both emotional strife (that sadly never pans out) and seafaring terror with aplomb.
Three and One Half Stars out of Five for Peter Benchley's Jaws! It's different from the movie, but definitely worth the read in its own right. With a little more focus, the fruition of promise and less of the old scrambling for a "reason" behind the shark attacks, this could have been a true classic. Luckily, it's the companion piece to a true classic, and that can't be bad!
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