Today was a two-errand day. I was picking up a modern classic potboiler at the library — the one about a ginormous great white shark that terrorizes the bejesus out of a New England beach town — and I was getting my periodic pedicure at the salon. I dubbed the day “ ‘Jaws’ and claws” to amuse myself. (Mission accomplished.)
The book I got really is “Jaws,” Peter Benchley’s 1974 blockbuster that spawned Spielberg’s famous film and a million petrified beachgoers around the world. As a kid, I lived in beachy Santa Barbara when both were released, and I fantasized about flesh-shredding teeth and ominous dorsal fins to unhealthy degrees. It terrified me, and I loved it.
First I worshipped the movie, which I saw at age 7, then I snatched my parents’ mass market paperback of Benchley’s novel and gobbled it up at age 8. I savored those pages, slashing with vivid, violent writing that helped turn me onto reading for a lifetime.
I still own that cracked, yellowed paperback, but it’s packed away with other mementos. So, on a whim, I hit the library up for its copy. I quickly located some of my favorite passages, ones that haunted — and excited — me as a young reader.
Can you handle it? This horrifying scene is from the opening of the book, when a young woman — recall her from the movie — takes a skinny-dip in the moon-dappled ocean.
“The fish smelled her now, and the vibrations — erratic and sharp — signaled distress. The fish began to circle close to the surface. Its dorsal fin broke water, and its tail, thrashing back and forth, cut the glassy surface with a hiss. …
“At first, the woman thought she had snagged her leg on a rock or a piece of floating wood. There was no initial pain, only one violent tug on her right leg. She reached down to touch her foot, treading water with her left leg to keep her head up, feeling in the blackness with her left hand.
“She could not find her foot. She reached higher on her leg. Her groping fingers found a nub of bone and tattered flesh. She knew that the warm, pulsing flow over her fingers in the chill water was her own blood. Pain and panic struck together. The woman threw her head back and screamed a guttural cry of terror.
“This time the fish attacked from below. It hurtled up under the woman, jaws agape. The great conical head struck her like a locomotive, knocking her up out of the water. The jaws snapped shut around her torso, crushing bones and flesh and organs into a jelly.”
Now, as a young boy, this was about as stupendously visceral as prose could get. (And I omitted the rest of the violence for reasons of taste and space.) “A nub of bone and tattered flesh” — I reread that line over and over, shocked, thrilled, gobsmacked.
Even today, these opening pages stun. Getting the book at the library, I was hoping Benchley’s eloquence would strike me again, and it did. That’s why I shared some here.
Call him a hack or a mercenary, but you’d be wrong. Benchley’s a savvy craftsman, expert at tension and thrills, not to mention a vibrant stylist with a painterly (think Francis Bacon) flair. His humans, from Quint to Brody, pop off the page even if the world he confects for them occasionally brushes pulp.
I’m not going to reread the entire novel, which is remarkably short at 278 pages, but it was fun revisiting a book that so influenced my cultural life.
Why “Jaws,” why now? Well, I’m reading an excellent new book about the history of Hollywood and the Academy Awards called “Oscar Wars,” and I’m deep in the chapter focusing on the making of “Jaws” (as well as “Barry Lyndon,” “Dog Day Afternoon,” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “Nashville” — 1975 was a hell of a year in American film.)
The lore is notorious: Making the movie “Jaws” was a prolonged ordeal and near-disaster for all involved, including a 26-year-old Steven Spielberg, who was sure his nascent career was finished. We know how that turned out.
If the movie “Jaws” remains one of my all-time favorites — in a crowded field that includes “Heat,” “All About Eve,” “Sweet Smell of Success,” “Manhattan,” “City Lights,” “Seven Samurai,” “Duck Soup” and on and on — the novel “Jaws” is more of a sentimental gem. It’s dear to my heart for reasons that go beyond art. On a nostalgic level, it has — yes, I’ll say it — sunk its teeth in me. And it won’t let go.