It’s summer again and Peter Benchley is back with his latest reprise of Jaws. But while the basic story hasn’t changed very much in White Shark, this time around, the saltwater man-eater has stainless-steel teeth, long yellow hair, cueball eyes, and a build like Frankenstein’s monster. It also lives in a bronze casket at the bottom of the ocean — and used to be a Nazi.
No, really, I’m not making this up.
In the last days of World War II, Dr. Ernst Kruger, a protege of Josef Mengele (in other words, the nastiest sort of mad scientist), packs his secret creation — “a weapon unlike anything ever created” — into a German U-boat and heads for South America. But somewhere east of the Bahamas, the hull ruptures and the submarine ends up crumpled like a big beer can in a mid-ocean trench.
Fifty-one years pass (the novel proper is set in 1996), and a National Geographic marine photographer discovers the wreckage. Naturally, he salvages the curious-looking airtight box lying nearby. And naturally — stupidly — he opens it. Out pops a water-breathing supersoldier with “maddening urges to kill.” Code name: der Weisse Hai. The White Shark. After that, just substitute the Connecticut seacoast for Massachusetts, and it’s pretty much Jaws all over again: A feeding frenzy is followed by the discovery of some ragged body parts. Several times. The local authorities worry about — what else — tourism. And so it falls to our hero, a ringer for Roy Scheider, to put an end to the slaughter. But familiarity, coupled with the overwrought goofiness of the monster (“Instantly alert, it willed adrenaline into its veins and lactic acid into its musculature”), makes more for giggles than suspense.
Benchley is not the first writer to get stuck in a groove, or to cannibalize his own best work, but what’s annoying here, and unforgivable, is the slapdash assembly. The prose (short sentences, short paragraphs, short chapters) is never more, though often much less, than serviceable, and the characters (a feisty oceanographer and his faithful Pequot Indian companion, a couple of Disney-cute teenagers, and the usual assortment of cantankerous fishermen) are so deficiently drawn that you couldn’t care less who gets eaten. What difference does it make? They’re only black marks on white paper.
You can’t help feeling that Benchley is bored out of his mind with his own story, more than slightly embarrassed by it, and desperately eager to get it over with. The only times he ever manages to be alertare when he’s delivering his minilectures about some fascination of the deep — the brain size of humpback whales or the social life of the bluefish. Need to know the three main dangers of diving? Benchley’s more than happy to tell you. Care to find out the effects of DDT on the Osprey Island population? He’s got the stats, right at his fingertips. As a horror novel, this isn’t a half-bad nature documentary. But as a calculated beach read, White Shark is a pretty dumb comic book. D