The Casual Reader

André Bernard

The Devil’s Teeth: A True Story of Obsession and Survival among America’s Great White Sharks. By Susan Casey. New York: Owl Books, 2006. 304 pp. $25.00.

“The killing took place at dawn and as usual it was a decapitation, accomplished by a single vicious swipe. Blood geysered into the air, creating a vivid slick that stood out on the water like the work of a violent abstract painter. Five hundred yards away, outside of a lighthouse on the island’s highest peak, a man watched through a telescope. First he noticed the frenzy of gulls, bird gestalt that signaled trouble. And then he saw the blood. Grabbing his radio, he turned and began to run.”

To someone contemplating a visit, which itself is an unlikely or perhaps undesirable event, the Farallon Islands, a 211-acre group of ten islets, present a forbidding and hostile landscape of sheer cliffs, barren, sinister rock formations, treacherous crashing waves, constantly shifting currents, and surf breaks. Swept by fierce winds, the islands are shrouded in impenetrable fogs and emit, thanks to a huge population of continually defecating seabirds, an almost unbearable smell of ammonia. Surrounded by frigid waters, the islands are lashed by fifteen-foot seas and present no clear place to land. For a human, this is not a friendly scene. As one nineteenth-century visitor noted, “God has done less for it than any other place.” But it is not isolated. The Farallons straddle the West Coast’s busiest shipping lanes, and lie a mere twenty-seven miles off the shores of San Francisco, technically within the city limits. They are also, from September through November every year, the gathering spot for the largest congregation of great white sharks known to man.

Susan Casey, an editor at Time Inc. with a strong interest in sports and the outdoors, spent a season on the islands observing the workings of two male scientists who have dedicated their lives to tracking, studying, and protecting the great whites. Shivering at night in freezing temperatures, haunted by the ghost of a woman who did not survive a failed nineteenth-century attempt to turn the Farallons into a commercial enterprise (something involving the mass sale and consumption of seabird eggs), making do in an essentially uninhabitable atmosphere, she became enamored of the scientists’ enterprise. This gripping and terrifically written book is the result.

Almost nothing is known of the great white, and what is known has largely come from the work done here. Why do the sharks congregate so faithfully? Why do they arrive at the same time every year? Where do they come from, and where do they go when they leave? Where are they born, how do they mate, and why do they seem so sociable with each other? There are few answers, but what can be told is told here, with a wonderfully exciting sense of danger and adventure. And believe it, the danger is real. The waters may look calm and empty, with no sign of life for hours. Things are quiet (except for the seabirds). But stretch your arm out over the gunwale of your boat, and within a moment a great white will shoot up from the depths with tremendous speed, leaping out of the water to tear at it. Many of the sharks are the size of buses or larger—that’s girth as well as length. (The biggest, which appear to hang together at the islands, are the females.) And the basic daily sighting is of killings: savage fast attacks of unbelievably bloodiness launched at seals, elephant seals, and larger sea mammals, with the initial attack inevitably being a full decapitation. Even in the presumed safety of a boat a human is not safe; you’d have to be insane to pull on a wet suit and drop into the water for a closer look.

This is scary stuff, and Casey describes the islands and the monsters that roam around them with the rhythm of the best thrillers. And she makes the reader understand the true nature of the fear: these animals, the product of an evolutionary triumph older than trees, are ruthlessly intelligent, utterly unpredictable, and perfectly designed for their own survival, which comes through death. They also have personalities, with their own quirks and characteristics. They are not remotely warm and fuzzy, they are untamable, they cannot survive in captivity, they defy human efforts to learn their habits, and they are invisible—except when they aren’t. They are essentially unknowable, and this is a terrifying thing.

But The Devil’s Teeth is not a cheap play on Jaws. Casey has a deeper story to tell. It’s about the islands, which are real. It’s about the seabirds and seals which inhabit them, and the scientists’ triumphs and frustrations. It’s about the undeniably devastating human assault on great whites and on the environment in general, and the nature of life and death in a tiny, self-enclosed, yet vital, ecosystem. It’s about learning to respect the world beyond human understanding, and learning to love and value the life that surrounds us. It’s a perfect book to read for pleasure, a page-turner that will thrill you even if, like me, the thought of a shark will keep you from ever loving going to the beach or venturing out beyond waist-deep water.

A final note: I was extremely pleased when I found this book (which has a great cover and color photos too) exactly where the helpful clerk in my local chain bookstore said it would be: the “Pets” section. How did that happen, and how great is that?

• •

Smonk. By Tom Franklin. New York: HarperCollins, 2006. 272 pp. $23.95.

At least two exceptional young writers have come out of the state of Alabama in recent years: Inman Majors, whose first (and so far only) novel, Wonderdog, is a frothy delight, proving that the southern literary talent for comic improbabilities continues to flourish, and Tom Franklin.

Married to the poet Beth Ann Fennelly (whose work has appeared in the pages of The Kenyon Review), and currently a resident of Oxford, Mississippi, where they both teach at the University of Mississippi (O lucky student body!), Franklin has emerged over just the past few years as a serious future contender for the hallowed mantle of Great Southern Writer. The 1999 story collection Poachers, his debut in book form, was warmly hailed as the advent of a remarkable new writer of unusual power and imagination, and in an interesting twist the title story won an Edgar Award for Best Mystery Story of the Year. The collection cannot be categorized as a mystery, however; its ten stories evoke, in dark yet simple prose of great beauty, the deep woods and river’s edge of Alabama, where poaching, drinking, and gambling serve as the stations of life. (My favorite review quote for the book is from the Dallas Morning News: “If Flannery O’Connor and Raymond Carver had gotten drunk together and produced a love child, he might have been Tom Franklin.”) Then, in 2003, came the novel Hell at the Breech. Using the outlines of a historical event in Alabama’s past, the book, set in 1897, begins with an accidental killing during the course of a robbery, and tells of the savage war between tenant farmers and comparatively wealthier landowners that the killing engenders. Remarkably violent, it is also violently beautiful in a way that readers of Franklin have begun to recognize as his own original style. Curiously, many readers seem to have taken the book for crime fiction. It is not. It is a gloriously gruesome and dark novel about haves and have-nots, about the aftereffects of slavery and the Civil War, about land and alliances and survival, and it proved Franklin to be a fiction writer of astonishing abilities and reach.

Now comes Smonk. The curious title, which initially may hinder a reader, is actually the name of the black-hearted main character. Short at five foot three inches, red-haired and red-bearded, consumptive, with one glass eye (and concealing both under blue glasses, the kind that once were prescribed for syphilis victims) and a squat, heavy body covered with scars, contusions, welts, scabs, and other random marks and slashes, Eugene Oregon Smonk is the meanest fictional character to come along since Cormac McCarthy’s Chigurh (in No Country for Old Men, but more on that masterpiece another time). Smonk is a Bad Act, and the eponymous novel, set in rural Alabama in 1911, traces the efforts of a motley and surprisingly large group of people to kill him off once and for all. Included in the mix are a hapless evangelical do-gooder, a boyish fifteen-year-old whore named Evavangeline, who is equally and uncaringly adept at sex and murder, a mysterious coven of widows who are harboring a nasty secret, and any number of river gamblers, criminals, misfits, sodomites, drunkards, misshapen ne’er-do-wells, and doomed soldiers, as well as a few murderous animals.

Franklin’s books have been likened to prose versions of Sam Peckinpah’s immortal movie The Wild Bunch, and there’s something to that. Violence rips through almost every page, with graphic scenes of dismemberment, eye gouging, mutilation of many kinds, gunshot wounds, attacks by psychotic wildlife, and almost loving slow motion displays of dying. Smonk is no picnic. But the icy murderous tenor of Cormac McCarthy is not what’s at play here; Franklin leavens his bloody canvas with a comic sensibility, and many light-hearted moments, that soften the Grand Guignol atmosphere. And his prose can be just wonderful: “The mule began to walk, and then trot, the bailiff’s son not looking back despite the storm of gunfire, the balloon bobbing above them like a thought the mule was having, empty of history”; “The place stank of fish and privy. Flies and gnats so thick the wind from their wings was nearly a comfort”; “He looked behind him where a hawk dropped from the sky into the cane and rose back up, the fieldmouse in its grip still clutching springs of straw in its tiny fingers. The lessons the world taught were everywhere”; and, “Early that same Saturday, somewhere between the river town of McIntosh and wild loamy climes north, Evavangeline happened upon a quartet of ancient horsemen in their tattered battle grays all these decades later and bearing long untidy beards the color of war.” Beautiful.

Smonk isn’t for everyone, and it isn’t Franklin’s very best book, representing something of a tiny detour (largely because of his emphasis on a humorous touch) on his steady ascent to serious achievement. But it’s a swift and original read, and to anyone interested in the southern school of literature, it, and all of Tom Franklin’s work, is essential. (And then turn to Beth Ann Fennelly’s verse to discover a marvelous contemporary poet.)

• •

A Coffin for Dimitrios. By Eric Ambler. New York: Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, 2001. 304 pp. $12.95. Judgment on Deltchev. By Eric Ambler. New York: Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, 2002. 288 pp. $12.00.

A reader of the summer 2006 issue wrote in regarding my comments on John le Carré’s The Spy Who Came In from the Cold. While agreeing that the novel is superb, he recommended his own favorite writer in the genre, Eric Ambler. So I spent several happy days devouring two of Ambler’s novels, chosen at random from a fairly long list of books written by the former advertising copywriter-turned thriller master. Ambler’s style and direction are completely different from those of le Carré. Filled with minute detail—cigarette brands, the vintage years of assorted bottles of champagne, the shape of a mustache, the exact cut of a suit and even the make and nationality of a man’s underwear—Ambler is much less interested in the inner workings of a government’s spy bureaucracy than in the fate of innocents caught up in murderous political intrigues not of their making (“The situation in which a person, imagining fondly that he is in charge of his own destiny, is, in fact, the sport of circumstances beyond his control, is always fascinating,” Ambler notes during the course of Dimitrios). And while he, like other thriller writers, lovingly explores the paranoid and deadly maze of international politics, he prefers the smaller canvas of local politics, local in the case of both of these books being the fetid carcass of prewar and postwar southeastern Europe, a rotting tangle of betrayal and petty greed revealing the utter absence of any moral compass whatsoever.

In Dimitrios, written in 1939, just before the cataclysm of World War II, a successful mystery writer on a tourist’s visit to Istanbul blunders into a dizzying web of drug dealing, espionage, and random murder. Deltchev, the 1951 product of the chilly center of the Cold War, is the account of an amateur English journalist covering the trumped-up show trial of a politician in an exceedingly unpleasant Balkan country. Naturally, in both novels events are not nearly what they seem, but it is part of Ambler’s considerable skill that the stories’ resolutions, such as they are, are beautifully handled, impossible to predict, and sordidly satisfying.

Ambler is a ripping read, a creator of first-class and completely original thrillers that still have a certain connection, if you wish to read them so, to today’s world. The threats of terrorism, the use of political and military power for reasons of personal enrichment, the insane and never-ending vortex of ethnic and religious hatred, will all resonate with modern readers, as will his laconic perception of the West’s basic incomprehension of belief systems and behaviors antithetical to its own. I was struck by the comments of one character in Deltchev, who says of her creaky, corrupt, backwards country, an enemy of the West and a place that has barely registered the twentieth century, “ ‘You see now why our patriots mean so much to us here. Their unquestioning belief that we are indeed a nation with our own cultural and political identities, and not merely a marginal tribe with some curious ethnological affinities, is our great comfort. The truth about many of our great traditional patriots is ugly or ludicrous; but it makes no difference. They are defended angrily. National feeling in small states is always angry; it must be so, for its roots are in fear and self-doubt, and for those things reason is no protection.’ ”

In the best casual reader tradition, reading these wonderful novels and thinking about Ambler’s world made me add another book to the bedside pile: John Lewis Gaddis’s The Cold War: A New History. Of course, whether the Gaddis will ever be read is another story, since it has already disappeared beneath Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief and Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children—which I hope to get to as soon as I read the new Cormac McCarthy novel, The Road, which I’ll get to as soon as I finish Gideon Defoe’s The Pirates! In an Adventure with Ahab and Julia Child’s posthumous (and addictively wonderful) My Life in France . . .

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