Book Report: Peter Benchley novel re-issued

American culture bounds in family traditions.

Think of the James boys, Henry and William. Or the Adams family, John, John Quincy and Henry. Or the Van Dorens, Carl and Mark and Mark’s kid Charles who cheated on a TV quiz show. One could go on and on.

One family that’s not quite as distinguished as those mentioned above because they only succeeded in the realm of pop culture.

That would be the Benchley family, beginning with Robert, the wonderfully glib essayist, actor, journalist and member of the Algonquin Hotel Round Table of Wits…

He’s the fellow who hailed a cab outside the fabled hotel and was informed by his addressee that he was not a bellhop, but an admiral in the U.S. Navy.

Benchley replied, “Then hail me a battleship.”

He’s also the guy who said “It took me 15 yeas to discover I had no talent for writing, but I couldn’t give it up because by that time I was too famous.”

His “modesty” is belied by his famous parody of a “treasurer’s report” and an essay on how to comepute one’s income tax.
Benchley died in 1945, but not before he left us a son.

That would be Nathaniel, who followed in his father’s footsteps, writing several books, like “Sail a Crooked Ship” and my favorite parody of academic writing, “A Garland of Ibid.s for Van Wyck Brooks.”

And Nathaniel begat Peter.

Peter’s the fellow who worked as a reporter for the Washington Post, became one of Lyndon Johnson’s speech writers.

Eventually, he made lots of money on a novel called “Jaws,” published 40 years ago.

It was made into a box office smash in which Robert Shaw chewed up the scenery after which he was chewed up by a very big shark, much to the delight of viewers who had a distaste for overacting.

Peter died five years ago after having commercial success with such novels as “Jaws,” his first, “The Deep,” and “The Island, all of which were made into movies.

Ballantine Books has just reissued his 1982 novel, “The Girl of the Sea of Cortez,” a book that passed me by without my noticing it.

It achieved rave notices, including the New York Times, whose reviewer wrote that it is “full of beauty, danger, and adventure…a novel to fall in love with.

The Christian Science Monitor compared it to Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea.”

It’s puzzling to me why it was never made into a movie.

Ever since the success of “Jaws,” Peter Benchley became an ecology advocate, passionately promoting the necessity of preserving the delicate balances of nature.

This novel carries on the campaign.

Its heroine is Paloma, who every day paddles her little boat into the Gulf of California and anchors it over an underwater volcanic peak, the dives in to examine the incredible variety of sea life populating the old volcano.

On one such dive she runs into a manta ray, a huge (sound familiar?) manta ray, so large it blocks out the sun. What a find!

Do you see where Benchley’s going?  Can you figure out  why Stephen Spielberg hasn’t put his technicians to work, creating a huge manta ray?  What a thriller that would make!

And of course you have to throw in a bunch of villainous people who’d like to capture it and show it for 50 cents a peek.

In such a movie Spielberg or one of his ilk could have their sensational cake and eat it too.  Nothing sells like moral superiority.

As long as we’re dealing with literary history today, my almanac tells me that on this day in 1950 poet T.S. Eliot granted Time magazine an interview in which he complained that “the years between 50 and 70 are the hardest.

“You are always being asked to do things and yet are not decrepit enough to turn them down.”

Editor’s note Dave Wood is a past vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle and former book review editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune.  Phone him at 715-426-9554.

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