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Review: A biting history on the roots of 'Jaws'

"Close to Shore"
By Michael Capuzzo
Broadway Books
317 pages

By Adam Dunn
Special to CNN

(CNN) -- "What could possibly equal being eaten alive by a monster fish?"

These words, from H. David Baldridge's 1974 paperback "Shark Attack" -- a collection of killer fish stories -- get right to the meat of why humans are morbidly fascinated with sharks. For starters, there is the evolutionary economy of its biological design: the shark eats, it sleeps, it eats some more. Then, of course, there is its simple relentlessness. The shark -- most infamously, the great white -- has come to represent the paragon of a remorseless, invincible eating machine.

The shark's reputation has been enormously facilitated by director Steven Spielberg, whose 1975 film "Jaws" brought home to landlocked audiences the terror of being hunted in the water by an insatiable, 25-foot, three-ton "monster fish." Spielberg's film was, in turn, based on Peter Benchley's novel of the same name, which chewed up bestseller lists in 1974.

But Benchley also had a source for his tale of a great white that terrorizes the beach community of Amity, Long Island, during a long, hot American summer. During the Fourth of July weekend in 1916, bathers on the Jersey Shore were suddenly set upon by a young, eight-foot white shark, which triggered one of the largest peacetime panics in American history.

This incident has been reconstructed in a new book, Michael Capuzzo's "Close to Shore." The work presents a fairly old story in an interesting new light.

The great shark hunt

Capuzzo, a former writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer and Miami Herald, mined the ample stores of columns generated during the shark hunt, then set about building up the historical background. He interviewed local residents, worked from contemporary primary sources, and, perhaps most importantly, did research at the International Shark Attack File based at the University of Florida.

Using updated research on the great white, Capuzzo tells a blow-by-blow story of the attacks, through the viewpoints of the victims, the shark hunters, and even the shark itself (a long stretch, but well-executed). What emerges is a Darwinian confrontation between an "apex predator" at the top of the food chain in its habitat, and the intrusion therein by a Gilded Age populace so naive it actually believed that "the great fish were no match for a man."

Michael Capuzzo
Michael Capuzzo  

Given that the ferocity of sharks had been documented up to that time by writers from Herman Melville to Herodotus, and given the terrible hint of the white's scientific name (Carcharadon carcharias, Greek for "biter with the jagged teeth"), Capuzzo's greatest hurdle seems to have been explaining the hubris of his human cast. He does, beginning with the daredevil antics of adventurer Hermann Oelrichs in 1891, swimming with a school of sharks to prove man's superiority over fish.

The author points to the rise of elaborate seaside resorts at Engleside and Asbury Park, where the rich fled to escape the swelter of a New York City burgeoning with immigrants, and where their children "were challenging their Victorian parents, and the latest fad was moonlight swimming." One can almost hear John Williams' memorable "Jaws" score warming up at this early stage in the book.

Yet Capuzzo's attention to detail also highlights the extraordinary courage displayed by shocked bathers, given the ferocity of the attacks. During the first fatal assault on July 1, bystanders engaged in a gruesome tug-of-war with the shark, which had a swimmer's legs clamped in its jaws, and even briefly pulled the creature up on land. Nearly two weeks later, the shark emerged almost 20 miles inland in Matawan, having ridden the high surges of a tidal creek brought about by the waxing moon. Here again a heroic bystander wrestled with the shark for the corpse of a young boy taken off a pier. He paid the ultimate price.

Dramatic pacing

A sense of hindsight pervades the author's narrative. Capuzzo intersperses the contemporary action with more recent research gleaned from Baldridge, who helped collate the carnage inflicted by sharks on U.S. sailors during WWII, as well as the "rogue shark" theory espoused by the Australian Sir Victor Coppelson to explain the shark's actions.

These time-traveling inclusions serve to emphasize, rather than distort, the dramatic pace of the narrative. This is particularly true when Capuzzo recounts how, in 1916, the esteemed ichthyologist Frederic Lucas (who had steadfastly denounced the danger of sharks to humans) was called in to identify an eight-foot female great white accidentally caught and killed by two fishermen on July 14. Despite the presence of human bones in its belly, Lucas ruled that the shark had merely scavenged a corpse, not killed a living person.

The backward glances drive home the author's underlying point: that man's hubris doesn't need gods to destroy it. Nature, "red in tooth and claw," can do that quite well on its own.

• Broadway Books

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