Bait: A Novel ★★★★
J. Kent Messum
You know, the thing about a shark…he’s got lifeless eyes. Black eyes. Like a doll’s eyes. When he comes at ya, doesn’t seem to be living… until he bites ya
The perfect beach read (for my twisted tastes anyway)…found as summer’s door closes on the Sunday of Labor Day Weekend. The book’s blurb describes Bait as: “Survivor meets Lord of the Flies meets Drugstore Cowboy” and that’s pretty accurate as blurbs go, with a side portion of Trainspotting to sweeten the deal.
Subtract the worst of its gory torture-porn aspects, I also couldn’t help be reminded of the original SAW — oh yes ladies and gentlemen, this is a winner, a white-knuckled page-turner with a gaping maw of shark’s teeth ready to take a chomp out of your ass at any moment. I’d love to see this as a movie, and its length would also have made it the perfect one hour Twilight Zone or Night Gallery episode.
The novel works so well because Messum takes some time (amidst the roiling action) to develop his cast of sad, deplorable and desperate characters. As readers, what are we to think of protagonists plagued by heroin addiction and the jagged guilt of dirty deeds?
The six victims who wake up stranded on a deserted beach are not the people we usually cheer for. It’s hard to warm up to them, and unless you’ve suffered from addiction yourself, it’s very hard to relate to them in any way. Despite this challenge, Messum takes what could have easily resulted in stereotypical junkies — the archetype, the caricature — and turns them into sympathetic characters, nicely fleshed out in a short period of time with minimal details.
On the surface, Bait is a thrill-kill, adrenaline read, a man versus nature versus man extravaganza. But beneath the surface, there is deep water that runs, not just with sharks, but with thematic purpose tinged with social commentary and observations of the human condition — our rage, our prejudices, our lack of empathy and understanding, our human ability to dehumanize ourselves and others around us. In some respects, this cautionary tale has an allegorical feel to it all, about justice and second chances and who deserves them.
As the dog days of September draw near, I can’t recommend this book enough for a quick and satisfying read.