Peter Benchley Essay - Critical Essays

Benchley, Peter (Vol. 4)

Benchley, Peter 1940–2006

Benchley is an American novelist and writer for children. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-18.)

The jaws are a white killer shark's; their maulings keep a Long Island resort in terror. Like that shark, this first novel by Peter Benchley—third in the line of writing Benchleys—survives by steady motion: to still it for close scrutiny is to sink it. But "Jaws" keeps its pace; it is a fluid entertainment.

The shark's shreddings provide the novel's supports; the story is strung between them….

Even for a fish story, "Jaws" may be a mite malodorous. The shark is as disconcertingly omnipresent as the town is defenselessly flaccid before its peril. "No mortal man is going to catch that fish," intones Minnie the postmistress, and the way these mortals hand it she doesn't have to hedge her bets. Briney connections, occasional florid or sentimental lapses, stark manipulations impair the narrative. Passages of hollow portentousness creep in, as do clattering allusions—perhaps inevitable—to the Great American fish felon, Moby Dick. But the shark is so menacingly adequate an [embodiment] of imagined malignity that, even though its attacks are telegraphed, they fix one's attention. In these scenes the novel's faults are forgotten. Other times, they circle restlessly like fins.

Andrew C. J. Bergman, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 3, 1974, p. 14.

"Jaws" is awful.

"Jaws" has rubber teeth for a plot.

"Jaws" is stunningly bad, a … fish-opera featuring cardboard people and an overblown shark. "Jaws" is a failure in almost every way possible for a novel to fail. It's boring, pointless, listless, bewitched by banality; if there's a trite turn to make, "Jaws" will make that turn. It seeks new reaches of tedium. It packs more padding than a pound box of surgical cotton. It is weary; vacant; tasteless….

Remember Huston's rubber whale in "Moby Dick"? Or Disney's 100-foot rubber squid in "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea"? Perhaps a 20-foot man-eating shark doesn't sound like much rubber beside a rubber whale or a rubber squid, but Peter Benchley's moviebound "Jaws" tries hard to stretch its dummy fish to the same big evil—the Devil in fish flesh.

The first 230 pages are a shuddering yawn, a mind-sapping yawn, a yawn that topples the stone-heavy reader into a poisoned coma, canyons of bottomless falling, falling, down into the belts of sleep below 300 fathoms where the nerves flake into fish fluff….

The climax does have a scenery-chewing, ballbreaker harpooner, Quint, a storm, more blood, and a Melville parody ending. And it's phony, Quint's phony,… Benchley's phony, even the shark's phony. There's not a single detail that convinces me that Benchley ever grabbed anything more dangerous than the stem of a martini, and certainly not the tail of a shark.

I think what hurts most is the shark. It lacks sharkness, a marvelous, strange sharkness to imperil my dreams. I could forgive everything, maybe, if at least I got some sense of poetry from the shark. All I get is the smell of research. Never do I feel the shiver of reading a sentence by a man who has looked a shark straight in the eye and grabbed me by the shirt to tell me about it.

Donald Newlove, in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; © 1974 by The Village Voice, Inc.), February 7, 1974, pp. 23-4.

In Peter Benchley's first novel, Jaws, the animal is the bad guy: a huge white shark that appears off the coast of a small Long Island resort town and proceeds to lunch on hapless bathers, much to the chagrin of the local tourist industry…. Much tension here, or so one would think: Should they close the beaches? Who's going to get eaten next? How are they going to catch the creature? Who (in a distinctly contrived subplot) is screwing the police chief's wife?

One dutifully finishes the book to find out the answers, which probably qualifies this as a page-turner, but somehow the suspense and snap just really aren't here. Benchley claims he wanted to keep this a serious novel, as well as a best seller, and that was probably his mistake. None of the humans are particularly likable or interesting; the shark was easily my favorite character—and, one suspects, Benchley's also. But then sharks don't buy books. Maybe if the sex subplot had paired the police chief's wife with the shark … but that, most certainly, would have been a whole different kettle of fish.

Michael Rogers, in Rolling Stone (© 1974 by Straight Arrow Publishers Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), April 11, 1974, p. 75.

Peter Benchley's best-selling first novel Jaws is haunted intermittently by the shades of Moby Dick and The Old Man and the Sea. At its centre is the duel between a man and a monster fish—a killer shark which terrorises the beaches of a small Long Island holiday resort. The metaphysical overtones are played down but the faint resonance they leave is enough to make the book more than a good thriller. The characterisation of the humans is fairly rudimentary and better so, for when Benchley attempts more detail he achieves only the ready-made. The shark, however, is done with exhilarating and alarming skill and every scene in which it appears is imagined at a special pitch of intensity.

John Spurling, in New Statesman, May 17, 1974, p. 703.