Judging from the title White Shark, seafaring Petey sure sounds like he's giving us a heapin' helpin' of sameness once again, and sure, the stock characters he's made famous are all here (only the names have changed). But, title be damned, White Shark is anything but a re-telling of Jaws, and if anything, is a quite unique angle on the type of story only Benchley can tell. There's no predictable end here with an impossible sea-chase, and there's no standardized by-the-numbers approach either. Sure it's not the most original novel in history, but it is a solid, good read for those who appreciate science fiction and oceanic terror.
At the close of the second World War, the Nazi scientists approached perfection of an ocean weapon that could turn the tide of the conflict and ensure an Axis Victory. Bigger than the Terminator, meaner than Agent Smith and uglier than the screenplay to Zombi 3, this unseen Creature could have been the key to world domination... but it was lost at sea.
Until, that is, a Jacques Cousteau/ Steve Zissou submarine mission accidentally uncovers the thing, and doesn't have time to regret it. Now, the reactivated monster preys upon the coast off of Connecticut, terrorizing humans, deer, doggies, whales, and sea lions alike, and never one offering more than a glimpse of itself to any eye or camera.
It's this that makes White Shark so different from many of Benchley's other works. Whereas the movie version of Jaws was (intentionally or not) stingy with your view of the shark, the Novel was explicit in almost everything old "Bruce" did! Here, Benchley takes a page from Speilberg and hides our novel's antagonist until the 11th hour. We know it thinks and hunts instinctively, we know it has metallic claws and jaws, but we know little, if anything else about it. What is this White Shark, really, and how did it stay alive all this time after the war ended? The answers are pure sci-fi, but with that reliable Benchley edge that makes it all feel surprising and plausible at the same time.
Benchley always gives us a group of characters to identify with and curse about when they end up as fish flakes, and they usually follow a very similar pattern to each other. In this case, Oceanographic Institute header Simon Chase and his son Max, best buddy Tall Man and new amiga Dr. Amanda Macy with her Sea Lion Chums (pun intended) take the lead here as the surprised, but in-the-know heroes, who witness the handy work of our surreal villain. Naturally, like in a Peter Benchley Novel, the Authorities are in a state of denial, and refuse to close town festivities, but thankfully the "Tourism Must Live" aspect is played way down here.
In fact, Benchley seems to be having fun with skewering his own conceits, presenting the occasional scene from Jaws and turning it on its ear for maximum surprise, and sometimes just a bit of humor. The characters, though stock for Benchley, are also fleshed out and believable to a degree, and easy to care for, especially when the final act doesn't mimic Jaws or Beast to a "T". I guess Amanda, Max, Chase, Tall Man and Max's new girlfriend Elizabeth have read enough of Benchley not to repeat the same mistakes of the past.
Benchley goes further with his demystification of the Ocean in White Shark. The man is a successful novelist, sure, but he's also a Harvard Graduate and Documentarian and contributor to both the National Geographic and the New York Times! Sure, this is a work of total fiction, unbelievable to say the least, however Benchley throws in as much Science Fact, specifically where related to the Monstrous Great White Shark (surprisingly not the fish of the title), allowing for a more realistic and informative read. This may well be a fish tale, but there's plenty of Protien in the dish, kids!
And while this isn't a perfect book, this is quite a fun read if you're interested in Benchley, and appreciate a surprise or Seven! This isn't Jaws, but Peter Benchley has re-written Jaws so many times, the uniqueness is a good thing, Amigos! Trust me, when you finally see exactly what the "White Shark" actually is, it's worth the wait... worth the surprise! Besides, unless I blinked and missed it, I'm pretty damned sure old Jaws wasn't a threat to you on land.
Three and One Half Stars out of Five for Peter Benchley's White Shark, a surprising, if not often read novel of science fact, science fiction and undersea terror! Benchley is still a master of dialogue, research and the unique method of inspiring a reader to horror in his black and white descriptions of instinct. On the other hand, it's hard not to think that you've read a lot of this before, if you're a Benchley fan. I am, and I'll continue to read him, but it might be nice to move into a new Neighborhood once in a while... meet some new characters, towel off... you know! But until then, grab that SPF-100, find a place in the sun, stay out of that water, and I'll see you in the next reel!
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