Why you should sink your teeth into the 1974 novel Jaws

Overshadowed by the 1975 film, this time-passing beach read is late-summer perfection on the radio.

 

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“You can’t tell me that thing’s a fish. It’s more like things they make movies about, you know? The monster from twenty thousand fathoms.” Late summer perfection! A ten-part reading of Peter Benchley’s 20 million-selling, 1974 novel Jaws that makes the whole thing sound of far greater merit than it ever was (10.45pm, 20-31 August). The time-passing beach read about a killer shark’s effect on a New England tourist town sounds not just exciting on the radio but latently comedic and marvellously downbeat. Only once did I miss the movie (made a year after the book came out).

Actor Henry Goodman reads it all, with such talent – all the people he manages so distinctly to be, hysterical parents, keenie journalists, impatient kids. He even embodies the shark itself, moving “silently through the water” with its “great conical head” and “power of a locomotive” – and he does it in an eerily casual, uninflected American accent, not trying to scare or horrify in the attack scenes. The words fade away now and again to the morose sound of seagulls.

Goodman somehow imbues the story with a touch of John Updike – an atmosphere of forty-something couples grilling themselves on loungers of aluminium, guzzling dry vermouth somewhere off Montauk. Clam bakes and infidelity. Come episode seven, everything’s taken on the dissolving feeling of long summer weeks. When we get to the scenes on the boat with the police chief (Brody) and marine biologist  (Hooper) and master fisherman (Quint), it’s just sea and sky and an overconfident shark.

I was looking forward to the famous USS Indianapolis speech, when Quint, one boozy evening, recalls three days in August 1945, spent in the waters of the remote Pacific with man-eating tiger sharks (his navy vessel had gone down while on a secret mission to deliver the Hiroshima bomb). Might Goodman best Robert Shaw’s Quint, whose ingenious minimalist vocal range in that scene seemed scarcely to move further than the semitone oscillations of the famous Jaws theme music? But argh – the speech isn’t in the book. Shaw (et al) made it up on set. I almost wish they’d included it as a kind of honorary addition. But even without, this is two weeks of pure pleasure. 

Book at Bedtime
BBC Radio 4

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The inside story of Mossad