Posted: May 22, 2011 in Uncategorized

Jaws 2Jaws 2 by Hank Searls

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

No, this is not a joke. Hank Searls, author of THE BIG X, THE CROWDED SKY, THE PILGRIM PROJECT, BLOOD SONG, and OVERBOARD (my favorite) is one terrific writer. Retired now with an online shop that helps beginning and even veteran writers hone their craft, Searls should get back in the game, especially in light of the ebook boom. He’s simply one hell of a stylist. He puts you in the book!

JAWS 2 is one of those weirder than life scenarios only Hollywood could concoct: a movie tie-in book that’s actually better than the movie on which it’s based which is worse than the movie before it, which is better than the original book. It’s complicated.

As anyone who wasn’t off the planet for the last 30 years knows, author Peter Benchley wrote a novel called JAWS, all about a big, hulking shark dining on the locals of a Long Island resort town in the summer of 1973. Benchley’s book, incredibly, was inspired by the true events of a big hulking shark (or sharks, depending your theory) dining on the locals off the beach and in a creek off Matawan, New Jersey, in the summer of 1916. No one is yet sure of the exact breed of the real-life culprit, but Benchley chose a Great White for his tale because that was the then-presumed offender of the 1916 killings. It’s generally accepted now that the real killer was a Bull Shark owing to its abilities to navigate and survive fresh water estuaries like the brackish Matawan creek. If people were afraid to go into the water after seeing the 70’s movie, a dark fin cruising an innocent-looking 1916 neighborhood creek must have been beyond traumatizing.

JAWS the novel was published in hardcover with success in 1974 by Doubleday. Before that, however,  unknown young director Stephen Spielberg got hold of the book’s galleys on the Universal lot and pleaded with the producers to let him helm the film. The paperback sales released in tandem with the film helped bolster an already gigantic hit. And you know La-La land: “If they liked it once, they’ll love it twice.” So JAWS 2 was green-lit. Actor Roy Scheider reportedly begged Universal not to make him appear in the sequel, not surprisingly, but a contract is a contract. The sequel’s plot surrounds the wholly improbable idea of yet another enormous shark snacking on the good folks of Amity Island (read: Martha’s Vineyard), mostly its adolescent population. Directed without an ounce of finesse by Jeannot Szwarc, this is an instance where you’re actually rooting for the shark to eliminate the obnoxious teens. Strangely IMDb lists the writers of this mess as Peter Benchley and Carl Gottlieb, who also penned the screenplay of the original. But the tie-in novel of JAWS 2 credits Howard Sackler and Dorothy Tristan. Given the dubious distinction between the two, I’d bet on the latter. At any rate, Hank Searls was invited to make sense of the whole thing in novel form.

A move-tie novel assignment is almost always a thankless task. There’s little original glory in it. Published in 1978 as a PB original (tie-ins always are) by Bantam, I can only assume a superb writer like Searls took the job for pocket money; he’d already had a reasonable hit with his own OVERBOARD (Norton) the year before. One can readily see, however, why both H’wood and publishing brass might think Searls the go-to guy for such a venture; he was a seasoned screenwriter, a WWII Navy pilot who knew his watery stuff and who even lived on a ketch in the South Pacific at the time. But with such a bad film (or script) to work  from, adapting the film must have seemed doggedly tedious. Maybe Searls—who does follow the film’s nothing plot, adding some padding of his own—was simply determined to buck the averages. Whatever the case, his novel is the only good thing that came out of anything surrounding the sequel.

If Searls’ book has any drawbacks it may be in trying to live up to its vivid first chapter. In the movie’s opening, a couple of divers we don’t care about stumble upon the wreckage of the Orca, Quint’s original not-big-enough-ship, now sunk somewhere off Long Island Sound. While taking pictures of each other near the canted icon, they get attacked by–what else? In a virtuoso display of how words can be far more potent than images, Searls turns a predictable prologue into a heart-stopper by taking us into the hearts and minds of the victims as well as the internal workings of the shark itself, wrapping all this in a green world of cold, murky twilight with verisimilitude as vivid as your worst bad dream. It begins the moment the two divers—lawyer and doctor part-owners of a Hatteras powerboat—don their wetsuits and slip into the water to start the final downward journey of their lives:

Halfway down the anchor-line the doctor paused. His panting, amplified in his regulator, was earsplitting. He was sure his partner, descending in a green flowering of bubbles 10 feet below him, could hear every gasp. Clinging to the half inch rope he tried to relax…he could not understand the apprehension that was making him pant.

The strobe light flared, turning everything momentarily white. All at once he heard a sound like a subway train, fast approaching from his rear. His partner, dancing on sand as he tried to balance in the current, wound his camera, then stopped. He stared at something approaching from above and behind the doctor. His mouthpiece fell from his face.

The doctor, startled, began to turn but instinctively hunkered down instead, clinging to a broken plank. His eyes were riveted on his companion. A great bubble soared from his partner’s mouth. The lawyer threw up an arm to protect himself…the green surface light faded. An enormous bulk, descending like a gliding jet, swept by, a foot above the doctor’s head, blotting out the dancing sunlight. It seemed to pass forever. The last of the shape became a tail, towering taller than himself. It swished once, almost sweeping him loose and blotting his view of the partner in a cloud of bottom-silt and mud. There was silence. The barrel clanged. The doctor clung to the plank, peering into the settling murk. He could hear only his own tortured breathing. He was terrified of the loudness of it, beckoning whatever it was back to the spot…One of his partner’s diving fins bounced past, heading to sea on the tidal current…

The beauty, of course–the deftness–is in revealing no visceral imagery at all, only the imagined horror of it. In his great book THE SILENT WORLD, Jacques Cousteau describes being underwater as so quiet “you couldn’t hear a whale swim up behind you,” so I can’t credit Searl’s  subway sound of the attacking shark. But I don’t dispute it either; you can’t write that well about the ocean depths without having experienced them. But it gets better—or worse, if you’re the poor doctor. His partner gone, and something still lurking about, he must return to the surface and the safety of the boat. We feel the terrified rattle of his nerves right down to our fingertips during the course of a few minutes journey that feels to the terrified swimmer like hours…

He eased his head from the water. The Hatteras slapped at anchor hardly a hundred feet away…carefully, he slithered toward the boat. He hardly broke the water. Once he stopped and glided, gazing straight down. He saw nothing but shafts of emerald light lancing the depths below. He shivered suddenly. Deep in his soul he felt another onrush of terror. He quickened the beat of his fins. One of them plopped loudly, and then the other, but he had less than 30 feet to go. He could no longer stand the dragging pace. With 20 feet to go, he was sprinting, thrashing recklessly, breathing in enormous chest-searing gulps. All at once, 10 feet from the boat, he felt a bump and a firm, decisive grasp on his left femur some three inches above his knee. It was surprising but not at all violent…He dipped his mask, looking down. He was amazed to see half a human leg, swathed in neoprene, tumbling into the depths…

Brrrrr! Great stuff!

The film features a segment involving a young girl parasailing, being plucked off the ocean surface and set down again like a bit of living catnip to tempt the pursuing shark. Searls wisely dispenses with such gimmickry in his book by foregoing the sky antics and letting water skis and shark alone be tension enough. All this is framed from the POV of the horrified husband driving the speedboat that pulls his hapless skiing wife. With terse prose choppy as the waves around them, Searls milks the scene for every ounce of nail-biting suspense. If the panicked husband can just get that ski boat back to shore in time:

A hundred yards behind her an enormous, lazy fin was beckoning. She did not see it, and while he stood frozen in horror, he saw it move, in a leisurely manner, up their trail. “Dee!” he screamed. She smiled at him over the water and took her hand off the towbar, waving him ahead. The fin was coming up on her now, weaving across their dying wake. It was simply gigantic. He jammed the throttle forward, way too fast, catching her off balance…in a moment he was afraid she would pitch headfirst into the wake…she was on the ski now and rising. He stood erect, searching their wake for the fin. The thing must have dived, that was it, he had fooled it.

Now all he had to do was head for the beach: no fish like that would go into shallow water…he scanned the beach for a safe place…gently, his eye on his wife, he began a sweeping curve toward the cottage. She was weaving again, jumping the wake each time, exuberantly. He signaled her to take it easy, simply to ski, finally slowed the boat so that she couldn’t do it at all, and then saw the fin again, coming up fast astern…

Does Searls have time for deep emotional insights and titanic literary themes? Hey, this is a tie-in novel. You’re on board for the thrills and if you’re not on board, grab that Tolstoy you never got around to. Is there more character weight and revelatory catharsis in his stand alone OVERBOARD?–you bet, and that novel ends with a shockingly poetic punch you won’t soon forget it. What Hank Searls delivers in JAWS 2 is a high speed read with surprising resonance, themes and descriptions that linger in the mind and on into our dreams. He could have tossed it off, sure, but he chose to go the other way: make pulp profound. At times he succeeds well beyond the call of duty.

In truth there are passages in JAWS 2 that are every bit as good as anything I’ve read by the author. I’ve given that considerable deliberation. Is this a case of a really good writer getting out of his own way, going with first-gut instincts and turning a quick paycheck into a mini-masterpiece of suspense? I don’t know. Sadly, his next sojourn in the saga, JAWS 4 (or was it JAWS 4.0?—I can’t keep up) is a less satisfying one. By then, attempting to novelize an idea no longer remotely novel may have proved beyond even Searls’ gifts.

A hint of this future futility comes in JAWS 2 when the author is expected to follow the movie’s preposterous script at its most ludicrous. Fending off the shark from a small craft, Brodie and a gang of adolescents are trying to haul up the anchor when its flutes become hooked on something below. Together they somehow heave the ‘something’ up—which turns out to be part of a length of miles long impossibly heavy power line to the lighthouse on the distant point—what the shark eventually bites into and electrocutes itself with. Even a writer of Searl’s talent must have hung his head in despair at such Herculean incredulity. But he plunges bravely ahead despite the laughable images: “It was black, shiny and as thick as his upper leg. How he and a few teenage kids had got it from the bottom, he had no idea.”

Nor clearly did Searls.

Some genius in Hollywood, maybe?

Jaws 2

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