I read Scott Smith’s “A Simple Plan,” loved it, finished it and never picked it up again. For me, that’s sayin’ something; I’m a big rereader. Honestly, though, I couldn’t bear to experience the story again — that’s how much it creeped me out.
The story took place in and around northwest Ohio, for one thing, Alan’s ancestral homeland. I’ve told him more than once that I have no intention of living there, ever, so he can forget the whither-thou-goest stuff if he ever gets a hankering for a Defiance zip code again. Smith’s portrait of a certain sort of semi-rural, tank-town hopelessness was so on the mark that it made my chest grow tight. He absolutely knows what it’s like to live in a place like that, especially when you haven’t exactly chosen it. As I recall, the main character, Hank, is a bookkeeper for a farm-implement business, which puts him in the white-collar class but just barely, with a salary that allows for little more than a version of paycheck-to-paycheck life, and with no future. Plus he has a brother with the IQ of Forrest Gump to look after, and a pregnant wife. Seldom has the tightening noose of a disappointing life been rendered quite so well.
So in the midst of this falls, literally, the solution to all his problems: A whole lot of money. While chasing a dog one wintry day, Hank, his brother and his brother’s drunk friend find a small plane crashed in a copse of trees. It’s been there for some time, to judge from the condition of the pilot’s body. Next to him is a large duffel bag, filled with $4.4 million in cash.
They start speculating on the source of the money. Clearly it’s ill-gotten gains; otherwise someone would have come looking for it, reported the missing plane. So why shouldn’t they take it? But they need more information, and so they — or rather, Hank — comes up with the plan: They’ll take the money, and sit on it, until spring, until the plane is found, the pilot identified and they have an idea who’s missing $4.4 million. Then they’ll wait another decent interval, and one by one, not all at once, they’ll leave town for plausible reasons and go start new lives in better places, each a millionaire. All they need to be is patient, and wise.
It’s a simple plan, really. Of course it falls apart almost immediately.
The story requires a reader to believe Hank is a good person who makes one bad decision on impulse — and it’s not to keep the money — and finds himself sliding headfirst to moral ruination. It’s not such a hard one to swallow; I’ve skated on far thinner ice while suspending disbelief. And I have no illusions about the depths to which good people can sink under the right circumstances. One benefit of giving up God is, it frees you to see that evil exists in every one of us, and it’s our struggle to contain it that gives life its crazy tension.
So now it’s 12 years later, and Smith is just now getting around to publishing a second novel, “The Ruins.” I can’t tell you much about the plot without spoiling it, but here’s why Alan put it down halfway through: Smith no longer finds his greatest villain in the murky forests of the human heart, but in the jungles of Mexico. The rave by Stephen King on the back cover should give you a clue: We’re in the Land of the Supernatural, and while I don’t think Smith has exactly performed a bait and switch — it’s his second book, after all — I see why the Amazon reader reviews are decidedly mixed. “I wanted to see stupid people do stupid things and suffer for it,” Alan said. “But not like this.”
The people aren’t stupid, just young. And American. And on vacation. A potentially fatal combination, as anyone who’s ever held those three cards can testify. Two couples go on vacation to Cancun, hook up with a German and a trio of Greeks in that sort of sign-language, we-speak-only-a-few-words-in-common way that’s fueled so well by alcohol. The German is sad because his brother is missing; he fell in love with a pretty archaeologist headed for some ruins inland, and went off to find her. He hasn’t been heard from since. But he left this map…
When the four make a series of dumb calls, each one complicating their situation a little more, we’re still rooted in familiar territory. But then the story steps off the path, literally, and we’re in King Kountry, and well, I finished the story, and it was as horrifying as I thought it would be. But it didn’t freak me out the way “A Simple Plan” did, because I’d have to believe that what did happen could happen, and I never believed that.
And if the whole thing was metaphor, well, 12 years was a long time to wait for a poorer retelling of “A Simple Plan.”
Still, it has a very flashy website.