It's not often that I can look at a book blurb and wholeheartedly agree, but Bait: A Novel is, in fact, a case of "Jaws meets Lord of the Flies meets Drugstore Cowboy!" About the only thing I might add to that is, "in the style of early Richard Bachman."
What J. Kent Messum has crafted here is a dark, disturbing tale of disposable people. On the one side you have a group of drug-addicted strangers, damaged outcasts who survive by feeding on the underside of society. On the other side you have a group of [small spoiler here] ex-military types, damaged outcasts who survive despite being fed to the underside of society.
Pretty simple, black versus white, good versus evil, right? Not so fast.
Beneath the cruelty of its Survivor type challenge, shark-infested waters, and crippling withdrawal pains, this is a story of human beings at war as much with themselves as one another. Messum gives each of the six castaways a back story, unveiled slowly as the narrative alternates between events on the island, and events in the city over the days immediately preceding their banishment. He wisely holds back from painting them as victims, or tugging too hard at the heartstrings, but does humanize a group of human beings who could otherwise have been simple horror story fodder.
The mystery of how they got there and why is part of the novel's allure, so I won't say anything further to spoil that, but it does set up some interesting philosophical questions regarding the war on drugs. It's not really a story where you can take sides, since neither is a safe nor comfortable place to be, but it does make you think about the emotional reactions it evokes. You could simply read it as a cold, callous, cruel bit of torture-porn, but that would be doing the novel - and the author - a disservice. There's a lot more to it, if only you stop and think about the motivations and justifications involved.
As for the ending, there are more than a few surprises in the final pages, but they really serve to put a final satisfying bite upon the reader.Originally reviewed at Beauty in Ruins