Jaws, a novel: Not just a scary story

dust jacket of Jaws is undercover scene of shark about to attack
A woman is swimming within a gulp of the shark’s jaws.

Having seen the trailer for the movie Jaws, I was surprised to find Peter Benchley’s novel Jaws not only read-in-one-sitting interesting, but also remarkably insightful.

The story is about how people respond when an elusive great white shark begins terrorizes a small Long Island town just before the July Fourth weekend that opens the tourist season.

When a young woman is reported missing, local police chief, Martin Brody, finds what’s left of her body down the beach from where her clothes were found.

The coroner confirms what Brody suspects: a shark attack.

Brody wants to close the beach to protect the public. The town council and businesses forbid him to do that.

When the shark kills again, this time with witnesses, Brody blames himself for lacking the guts to stand up for his convictions.

The rest of the novel focuses on Brody’s ham-fisted attempt to protect public safety and recover his self-respect.

A young shark expert from Woods comes to look for the big white. Up the coast a 50-something fishing charter operator sees the financial possibilities of shark-searching.

Benchley blends shark facts with keen observation of people. Jaws isn’t quite Greek tragedy, but it’s a ladder above most of the pop fiction of the ’70s.

Jaws: A Novel by Peter Benchley
Doubleday, 1974, 311 p.
1974 bestseller #3. My grade: A-

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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The Honorary Consul: Incisive, insightful, intriguing

Graham Greene called his earlier bestseller Travels with My Aunt an entertainment and The Honorary Consul a novel. The distinction is apt.

Bright sunny colors with thin box around words The Honorary Consul
An image can’t capture the story of The Honorary Consul.

The main character in The Honorary Consul is physician Eduardo Plarr whose English father disappeared after having gotten involved with revolutionaries in Paraguay.

Plarr’s medical bag gives him entree into all classes of society in the unnamed Argentinian city in which Charles “call me Charley” Fortnum is honorary consul. Britain recalled the under-worked real consul. The locals don’t know the difference, and most of the time Charley is too drunk to care.

Charley has wed a woman from the local brothel who, to Charley’s delight, is pregnant. Unknown to Charley, Dr. Plarr is Clara’s lover and father of his child.

Charley is kidnapped by revolutionaries who mistake him for the American Ambassador. Rather than waste a hostage, the revolutionaries threaten to kill Charley if their demands are not met.

The kidnappers call Plarr to look after Charley.

Greene is a master of incisive detail. Whether sketching a character or describing a revolution, his pen is precise: Every word matters.

What’s more, every character matters. Greene cares about the countries and the people about whom he writes.

He’ll make you care, too.

The Honorary Consul: A Novel by Graham Greene
Simon and Schuster, © 1973, 315 p
#1973 bestseller #8. My grade: A

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Evening in Byzantium

Evening in Byzantium isn’t set in Byzantium.

a city by the sea that could be anywhere is image onon Evening In Byzantium
Cannes is not quite Byzantium.

That’s just the first of many intriguing and ultimately frustrating aspects of Irwin Shaw’s 1973 bestseller.

Jesse Craig, 48, a film producer who hasn’t produced anything in years, is in Cannes to pitch a film he’s written — if he can work up the courage.

He was successful early in his career, but the work he put in to create the success took its toll. Craig’s wife is divorcing him, he’s alienated from his daughters, and the pilgrims coming to to Cannes worship money rather than honest storytelling.

A 20-year-old “journalist” chases Craig for an interview. She’s obviously motivated by something more than a byline, but Craig can’t figure out what.

At Cannes, Craig learns what he had feared: He may get a buyer for his script but he’ll never get an audience for his film. The world Craig knew is gone.

Craig returns to New York where he is almost immediately hospitalized for a month with a bleeding ulcer which his surgeon tells him is self-induced.

In Shaw’s pen, Craig comes across as a genuinely decent guy. He treats even people he dislikes politely, albeit coolly.

Nothing in the novel prepares readers for Craig’s hospitalization or for his behavior after release.

Evening in Byzantium by Irwin Shaw
Delacorte Press, 1973, 368 p.
1973 bestseller #7. My grade: B+

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

My Name is Asher Lev: Art for truth’s sake

As the title suggests, My Name is Asher Lev is related by Asher Lev, born in Brooklyn in 1943 to parents whose marriage united two prominent Hasidic families.

front dust-jacket of My Name is Asher Lev shows the artist at work.
What is Asher Lev thinking as he eyes a blank canvas?

Asher is a very sensitive child, but he cannot communicate his feelings except through art. His earliest playmates “are Eberhard and Crayola.”

Asher’s mother, an emotionally fragile woman, likes him to draw pretty birds and flowers.

Asher’s father, principled and highly disciplined, thinks art is at best a waste of time; at worst, it’s a violation of the Law.

Mr. Lev travels as a missionary/community organizer, setting up schools in Jewish communities in communist countries.

When Asher enters yeshiva, his mother enters college to study Russian so she can work with her husband in stead of waiting for him to return.

The Rebbe, a faceless figure at the periphery of Asher’s life, arranges for him to study art with the world’s most prominent Jewish artist.

Asher grows distant from his family even as he grows mature enough to understand why they view life as they do.

Chaim Potok’s characters are complicated, sometimes puzzling to themselves as well as to those around them.

In Asher Lev, as in The Chosen and The Promise, Potok writes straightforward prose that mutes profound meaning: I burst into tears after reading the novel’s last line.

My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok
Alfred A. Knopf, © 1972, 373 p.
1972 bestseller #9. My grade: A

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Rabbit Redux is a literary Pompeii

Rabbit Redux is the second volume of what would become John Updike’s four-book series about Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom. Although Redux is peppered with allusions to Rabbit, Run, readers who haven’t read that will feel slightly out of place.

Red, gray and blue striped cover suggests things out of whack in Rabbit Redux
The moon landing happens during Rabbit Redux.

The novel is set in 1969 in Brewer, a small Pennsylvania city whose neon outskirts conceal a decaying core left by the middle class folks like the Angstroms fleeing to the suburbs.

Harry takes the bus (“It stinks of Negroes.”) to work downtown. Janice drives the car to her job so she can meet her lover conveniently.

Janice moves in with her boyfriend.

Invited to a seedy bar by a black man with whom he works, Harry agrees to give a bed to a runaway, who says she’s 18 and drug free.

He brings Jill home; soon she and Harry’s son, 13-year-old son Nelson, are pals and Jill’s sharing Harry’s bed.

Then Jill brings home a black drug pusher wanted by police and things get complicated.

Reading Updike is like visiting Pompeii today: You see ordinary people going about ordinary lives captured as their world blew up and caught them unaware.

Rabbit Redux would be worth reading just for it’s glimpse into American culture circa 1969.

Rabbit Redux by John Updike
Knopf, ©1971 [my copy, 1981] p. 407
1971 bestseller #10. My grade: B+

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Other: Plausible horrors

In The Other, Thomas Tryon does something few horror stories do: He makes the horrific plausible enough to happen.

Boy's head set within the O of The Other on an otherwise empty front cover suggests secrets.
Peek through the key hole into The Other.

The story is set in the 1930s in a small Connecticut town where everybody knows everybody else’s business.

The narrative is buttressed by monologues by an unnamed person who recalls various bits of history from Pequot Landing, Conn. The person is confined in an upper floor room in some unnamed institution.

The Perry twins, Niles and Holland, are close, not just because of their twinship, but because their father died in an accident the previous fall, their mother is emotionally fragile and drinks, and their household is run by the boy’s maternal grandmother, Ada.

The boys are temperamental opposites: Holland is easily angered and sadistic; Niles is gentle and loving, with an uncanny ability to think himself into the role of animals.

Tryon lays the story out as a mystery, with plenty of clues for the alert reader.

The novel gets its impact from the fact that the novel’s characters have the same clues available and fail to recognize their significance, just as the California neighbors of David and Louise Turpin failed to put their clues together.

The Other by Thomas Tryon
Knopf, 1971, 280 p.
1971 bestseller #9  My grade: B+

©2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Rich Man, Poor Man: A story without a message

Irwin Shaw’s beguiling novel Rich Man, Poor Man will keep you turning pages way past your bedtime.

Rich Man, Poor Man 1st ed dust jacket

It won’t, however, provide anything other than entertainment.

Shaw looks at the lives of Rudolph, Gretchen and Thomas Jordache from the end of World War II through the Vietnam War.

Their father, a German immigrant, killed to get to America. He finds he can’t get ahead no matter how hard he works. He takes his bitterness out on his wife and kids.

Rudolph, 16, has brains, ambition, and willingness to work hard. He deliberately cultivates his more rare assets: trustworthiness and likeability.

Gretchen is 19. Her high school friends went to college; her parents couldn’t afford to send her. She works as a secretary: The family needs her paycheck.

Tom, 15, is as bitter as his father. He’s smart, just not school-smart. He enjoys hitting people.

Shaw makes the separate lives of the three very different siblings come alive.

When they reach their 40s, Shaw succeeds in bringing them under one roof, but nothing can resolve their childhood traumas.

That’s probably a realistic outcome. Readers, however, crave some glimmer of hope that people can change the trajectory of their lives.

Shaw can’t produce one.

Rich Man, Poor Man by Irwin Shaw
Delacorte Press, [1970]. 723 p.
1970 bestseller #10. My grade: B+

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni