Greed complicates life's simple things

September 02, 1993|By Chris Kridler | Chris Kridler,Staff Writer

TC If your faith in humanity is suffering, "A Simple Plan" won't do anything to cheer you up. But if your faith in hyped books needs a boost, you should pick up Scott Smith's brutal and accomplished first novel.

Mr. Smith deftly hooks the reader with his first few lines: "My parents died in an automobile accident the year after I was married. They tried to enter I-75 through an exit ramp one Saturday night and crashed head-on into a semi hauling cattle." Then he matter-of-factly unreels an increasingly horrifying story.

The narrator, Hank, seems to be a regular guy. He exerts his normality: His house is "unabashedly suburban"; he's an accountant in the feed store in his hometown; he's married to a college classmate and is expecting a child; and he enjoys all the comforts and routines of a Midwestern, middle-class family.

But finding $4.4 million is not routine.

Hank, along with his brother, Jacob, and Jacob's friend, Lou, stumble upon the money in a downed plane. They decide to keep it, taking certain precautions. It's a simple plan.

But greed isn't that simple. Hank and his brother have been anything but close; their one tie is their father's will, which demanded that they visit his grave once a year. There is little trust between them, and less love.

They don't even trust the way their parents died -- in light of their parents' debts, the accident looks suspiciously like suicide. To their father, money was more important than life.

It's a lesson his sons learned well.

Without trust, Hank and Jacob and Lou resort to harsher means to seal their pact. You can't say that Hank means well, because the money becomes a force within him, an end to any means, a substitute for all moral debate.

It molds him like clay, and he will do anything to keep it. His paranoid and obsessive road becomes paved with blood. (This story is not for the squeamish.)

Hank's only qualm as his simple plan disintegrates is that his wife might not understand what he has done.

But even she reacts with a curious lack of feeling:

"What we've done is horrible," Sarah said. "But that doesn't mean we're evil, and it doesn't mean we weren't right to do it."

It becomes unnervingly easy for them to justify everything. Hank mulls his scanty guilt:

"Perhaps the greatest relief of all, though, was that I still thought of myself as a good man. I'd assumed that what had happened . . . would change me, affect my character or personality, that I'd be ravaged by guilt, irreversibly damaged by the horror of my crime. But nothing changed. I was still who I'd always been."

And just who has he always been? There's the one real flaw in the book; we don't really know what these people were like before the money changed their lives. One thing we do know is that Hank seems incapable of sustaining any emotion deeper than pity. Even his love for his family is a sheen over something bleak and unforgiving.

When his conscience does surface, he dismisses the tears:

"Before I even stood up, I knew how I was going to approach what had happened here tonight. I'd look on it as an anomaly, a parenthesis within my life, a tiny lacuna of despair into which I'd stumbled and then extracted myself."

A well-spun tale of good and evil has basic appeal. The foreign rights for "A Simple Plan" have been sold in more than a dozen countries, and it's been optioned for film. It merits its early success.

Mr. Smith executes a kind of grueling suspense. It's like watching disaster footage, in which you dread the worst but are unable to turn away as the carnage grows. His dark vision creeps into the bone as surely as cold creeps into stone.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "A Simple Plan"

Author: Scott Smith

Publisher: Knopf

Length, price: 329 pages, $21

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