Saturday, May 30, 2020

Tired of Being Mellow? Take a Trip to “The Island” (1979)—Summertime Reading Recommendation!

Look at that cover!
Embossed, man, embossed.
It’s a sign of quality. You’ll see, man…
Summertime reading!
This summer’s the max New Plague bummer, yah?
Then read up on folks having a much worse time than you, without having the terrors get too close to home with something like Station 11 (which I couldn’t finish reading, ’cause, y’know, New Plague….) or The Stand….

Here’s the
PERFECT summertime reading, especially if you’re tired of trying to be mellow.  

The Island by
Peter Benchley (1979)

Boy, oh, boy! Is The Island a KEE-RAY-ZEE book or what?
Jeez, I’ve been reading and rereading this Great Trash since I was 14 years old. Patti Smith has Mickey Spillane, and I have pirates—who are one-hundred times more bloodthirsty than a gang of PCP-zlorched bikers.

According to my sources, The Island is a hard book to find; not inexpensive, and often seemingly evaporated, only to have one or two appear here or there. But it’s worth hunting down! I should scan it and turn it into a PDF and charge you guys, or something!

Sure, sure, sure, the 1980 movie of the same title sucked—even though I’m oddly obsessed with it—and actually like Michael Bay’s 2005 movie of the same title (and I think there’s a Korean film with that title as well; that’s what happens with such a generic title….)
That being said,
this book—The Island
is MUCH better than the flick made from it,
and is the psychotic action awesomeness that movie COULD HAVE BEEN.
(Like, if they had hired Michael Winner or Sam Peckinpah to direct the film instead of Michael Ritchie. Don’t get me wrong, I love Ritchie’s films Smile and The Bad News Bears, but his being hired to direct the cinematic version of The Island is one of the greatest head-scratchers to come out of Hollywood. Winner and Peckinpah have a much better grasp—or flair for—the grubby and casually violent.)

This is a stupid book, but a really, really smart one, too—absolutely sticking to a formula, but canny enough to obscure its tracks, or to really up the ante when the formula is becoming obvious—
with oddly enough, what feels like some good, thoughtful—if highly biased—anthropological research.

But it’s a bitter, cynical novel, too, and it shows it in the contemptuous violence and the descriptions of various mortifications of the flesh. [See pix at right--click to enlarge]

Back in the day, when he was pitching Jaws, PB was also pitching what Wiki called a “non-fiction book about pirates.” Benchley was honest about his recovering from alcoholism (and touches upon the rehab experience with expert comic timing in his Rummies (1989), a laugh-out-loud, character-driven drama-thriller about alcoholism and rehabs).

Some of the film's gore
If PB was writing while under the spell of Demon Rum,
I wonder if much of the violence and mayhem and sheer unadulterated misanthropy of The Island was directed at his fans, like for them wanting the trashy sex & gore of Jaws, over a more scholarly work.

After making beaucoup bucks from selling Jaws and The Deep to Hollywood, Benchley specifically wrote The Island with the cinema in mind (and he has the sole credit for the screenplay, as well)—and very violent, action-packed cinema, at that.

The novel’s kind of punk rock in its ferocious take-no-prisoners attitude (of course I’m reminded of that song with the Sex Pistols as pirates), its velocity, and its willingness to alienate an uptight mainstream audience (at least until the novel’s unhappy ending where the pirates lose and the “good guys” win).

The book ping-pongs chapters, first with “normal folks” getting slaaaaaaughtered at sea by something, then protagonist Maynard (a reporter going through a painful and financially-draining divorce, and is bored with his journalism editorial job). This goes on until the two threads converge….

Like Benchley’s previous efforts, The Island is aquatic in nature: Researching the disappearance of over 600 fishing and pleasure boats in a specific region of the Caribbean, Maynard and his 12-year-old son, Justin, are captured by pirates, actual descendants of the pirates and their wenches shipwrecked on a hidden, forlorn cove almost 400 years ago. They’ve also rejected most modern forms of technology, anything that would need power, and live a primitive life, full or hardship and violence. Subsistence farming and fishing, boosted by routine pirate raids, are what keep these miscreants alive.  

Despite being tough enough to guzzle rubbing alcohol for kicks, the multiple-generations of inbreeding have left the offspring of 16th and 17th century buccaneers quite FUBAR in the gene pool department.
To improve their lot, for the last twenty years or so, rather than slaughter everyone on the ships the pirates stealth attack, they now abduct any kids 13 or younger.
After hacking everyone else to pieces, stealing as much as they can carry, and sinking the boat, natch.
Back at their hidden cove, the pirates re-indoctrinate/brainwash their young charges into joining their community of seafaring maniacs.

But they keep the reporter alive because they believe him to be the descendent of Lieutenant Robert Maynard, the man who killed Blackbeard the Pirate—and the cutthroats want 20th century Maynard to breed with one of their women and pass along that bravery.

She turns out to be the book’s most interesting character, a taciturn and reticent “pirate lass”—more than likely one of the children the brigands grabbed in some contemporary raid—we’re never told, or given any but the slightest hint of her past—
now grown into a strong-willed survivor in the ultimate Darwinian environment.

Meanwhile, since Justin is also, by the blood-splattered scalawags’ thinking, a descendent of sailor who slew that freebooting legend Blackbeard, they begin to groom the boy to be the next pirate king.

This book moves at a blistering pace, the epitome of page-turner, and simply PILES on weirdness and mayhem on top of weirdness and mayhem, with nearly every character a little off, if not downright strange. (The pace also prevents you from asking too many questions….)

And then there are all the graphic descriptions of stabbings, garrotings, bodily violations to both men and women, jellyfish stingings, shootings by musket, bizarre theories (another great character in the novel is the loquacious and amoral anthropologist who’s actually helping the psycho Long John Silvers), catfights, beheadings, and other gruesome acts that decorum prohibits repeating.
Like I said, great stuff!
The book feels like the perfect formula (that I still can’t quite identify specifically), and if they could have somehow captured the fevered madness on the page, they really would have had a hit movie!

As I said before,
PERFECT summertime reading, especially if you’re tired of trying to be mellow.  

[BTW, I’m sure I’ve mentioned this before, but Jaws, the novel, wasn’t a big hit because it was thrilling action that tapped into our primordial fears! Jaws, the bestselling book, was a hit because it was practically porn! All the “dirty bits,” like Hooper fingerfucking Mrs. Brody in the car, had been page-marked or dog-eared for easy finding as the battered mass-market paperback was passed around the parking lot and later, the back of the school bus…. ]

My rules were simple:
I'm sticking only to books I have read and reread at least twice, if not more, as well as material that isn't exactly "well known."

Albert Whitlock's matte painting for the 1980 film

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