Shark thriller proves dif­fi­cult to di­gest

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - LIFE -

SIX Mi­ami heroin ad­dicts are kid­napped by shad­owy ex-mil­i­tary men, wake up on a de­serted is­land and are forced to swim through shark-in­fested wa­ters to get their next fix.

So be­gins Bait, a kind of Jaws meets Sur­vivor meets In­ter­ven­tion thriller by Toron­to­nian J. Kent Mes­sum.

If you can swal­low that premise, Mes­sum’s first novel is a page-turner, eas­ily con­sumed in a few hours — though you might find it dif­fi­cult to di­gest.

Nar­ra­tion in Bait is un­steady, some­times re­lay­ing the (of­ten crude) thoughts of each char­ac­ter, but oc­ca­sion­ally de­scrib­ing events un­known to the char­ac­ters or oddly ill-timed phi­los­o­phiz­ing. For ex­am­ple, one drug-ad­dled swim­mer re­flects on the na­ture of iden­tity as “key to cor­po­ral­ity” while be­ing eaten by a shark. (No spoiler alerts needed here — the first shark at­tack takes place on page 2).

A sto­ry­telling con­ceit used through­out the novel — re­peat­ing words in the last sen­tence of one chap­ter in the first sen­tence of the next chap­ter — at first seems like a rea­son­able choice when link­ing char­ac­ters on the is­land with their flash­back his­to­ries, but it be­comes tired quickly, and by the 25th chap­ter many ap­pear to have been painfully forced into the mould. Mes­sum, a peri­patetic worker in the film and mu­sic in­dus­tries, has clearly re­searched to­topics in the book. He de­tails var­i­ous species of sharks — in­clud­ing the “nic­ti­tatat­ing mem­branes” on their eyes — and dde­scribes at length the ef­fects of heroin wwith­drawal on his char­ac­ters.

The six pro­tag­o­nists are mostly unlilik­able, though Mes­sum makes a heavy­handed at­tempt to raise read­ers’ sym­pa­thies by hav­ing each char­ac­ter con­fess hhis or her great­est re­grets.

“The stone in her chest that had rre­placed her heart years be­fore was ccracked through and through,” he writes about one woman. “The con­fes­sion ground pieces of it into dust, which thick­ened with her blood into clay. That clay could patch her heart if only she would al­low it.”

The wealthy, beer-drink­ing, Cuban cigar-smok­ing ex-mil­i­tary men (“for all in­tents and pur­poses we’re ghosts... tech­ni­cally we don’t ex­ist”) are less un­der­stand­able. The men watch their vic­tims through binoc­u­lars from a lux­ury yacht an­chored off­shore, film­ing, taunt­ing and plac­ing bets on their sur­vival.

Mes­sum tries to shed a bit more light on their mo­ti­va­tions with an ex­plana­tory mono­logue wor­thy of a James Bond vil­lain: “Maybe our en­e­mies aren’t the prob­lem. Maybe the drugs aren’t the prob­lem. Maybe it’s peo­ple like you that are the prob­lem.”

But ha­tred for drugs makes puz­zling their de­sire to cul­ti­vate con­tacts in the drug un­der­world, re­search and cap­ture th­ese par­tic­u­lar vic­tims, and pur­chase large quan­ti­ties of high-qual­ity heroin all in or­der to ar­range an elab­o­rate “mod­ern-day sa­fari.”

The novel is at its best when Mes­sum tack­les sin­gle mo­ments in time, for ex­am­ple, the addict’s in­tense joy and re­lief the mo­ment he gets high. Other scenes are ab­surdly un­be­liev­able, in­clud­ing a laugh­able fist-fight among char­ac­ters tread­ing wa­ter with sharks cir­cling in the sea.

Bait is mostly com­posed of equal parts ham­fisted dia­logue, jar­ring metaphor and hor­rific shark at­tack. But if you savoured Shark­nado and ad­mired Megalodon, then it’s worth a nib­ble.

Bait would best be con­sumed in a shark’s state of mind: quickly and mind­lessly swal­low­ing it whole.

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