Friday, January 15, 2010

Plan Is Simply Devastating

In his The New Rhetoric, Chaim Perelman concludes, "The distinction of the different genres of oratory is highly artificial, as the study of a speech shows." He then goes on to cite Marc Antony's "friends, Romans, countrymen" speech in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, noting how it "opens with a funeral eulogy ... and ends by provoking a riot that is clearly political." While Perelman sees this as an example of genre's artifice, I think it better illustrates its flexibility. All but the most obstinate critics note how speeches and poems and narratives naturally clump together in camps. It's interesting, then, when an author decides (like Marc Antony) that his work needs to become the genre-fiction equivalent of a citizen of the world rather than a longtime resident of a single locale. Which is exactly what Scott Smith does with his debut novel, A Simple Plan.

Hank Mitchell has a good life. The first in his family to attend college, he has landed respectable job as head accountant of a small, Ohio feedstore. His undergraduate sweetheart is also expecting their first child. It's a steady, if slightly dull, existence, but certainly better than that of his older brother, Jacob. Perpetually slovenly and unemployed, Jacob spends his days playing with his German shepherd Mary Beth and his nights drinking with his best friend Lou. The only thing that brings the two brothers together is a mutual pledge to visit their parents' graves on the last day of every year. And during the year it all begins, they are driving to do just that when a fox darts in front of Jacob's pickup and Mary Beth leaps out in pursuit. One long walk across snow-covered fields later, they discover the mutt amongst a copse of apple trees -- and a downed plane filled with over $4 million in cash. They hastily hatch a plan to keep the money until summer and burn it if anyone comes looking. Simple, right? But even the simplest plans can go so easily awry.

Current writing mores almost demand a whiz-bang intro, but Smith doesn't take that tack. Plan begins in literary mode, most of the action staying firmly between Hank's ears. From there it moves in a slow swell, gradually introducing characters, delineating their personalities and motivations, stringing out the moral deficiencies that will strangle them later. Only once the stage is fully set does it transmute into a crime-thriller. Alliances coalesce, then shatter. Laws get broken in the heat of the moment, then transgressed again with cold-hearted foresight. When attempted blackmail erupts into charnel-house slaughter, you suddenly see Smith's goal. It's taken so very little for these salt-of-the-earth people to move into the depths of depravity. "You're just a nice, sweet, normal guy," Hank's wife tells him. "No one would ever believe that you'd be capable of doing what you've done." How much would it require for us to follow them? In the end, Plan is the best sort of horror novel, a devastating examination of the darkness in every heart.

(Picture: CC 2005 by

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