Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Shark thriller proves difficult to digest

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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 topics in the book. He details various species of sharks -- including the "nictitating membranes" on their eyes -- and describes at length the effects of heroin withdrawal on his characters.

The six protagonists are mostly unlikable, though Messum makes a heavy-handed attempt to raise readers' sympathies by having each character confess his or her greatest regrets.

"The stone in her chest that had replaced her heart years before was cracked 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.

Wendy Sawatzky is associate editor digital news at winnipegfreepress.com and commander in chief at wendysawatzky.com.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 31, 2013 A1

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