The latest in an occasional Slate series that surveys whether you should bother to read the books on the New York Times best-seller list.
Six travelers walk into the Yucatan jungle in search of an archaeological dig. Within hours, they find themselves trapped on a hillside, surrounded by Mayan villagers wielding bows and arrows. If they descend the hill, they'll be murdered. If they stay on the hill, the travelers' flesh will be eaten by a carnivorous vine. Last time I was in Mexico, spring breakers seemed like a more imminent threat than the wildlife, but Scott Smith, author of the novel The Ruins, insists otherwise.
The Ruins is Smith's first novel since his best-selling A Simple Plan (1993). After that book, Smith was hailed by Stephen King and others as a thriller writer with literary ambitions. The Ruins has so many ditzy metaphors and leaden characterizations—"Jeff had something about him that made people trust him"—that it succeeds in proving the opposite. Yet what makes this book so readable, and what separates Smith from his thriller-writing brethren, is his furious devotion to situational ethics. Smith's books pose the kind of dilemmas that ethics professors lob out to helpless undergraduates. To take one gruesome example from The Ruins: When your friend's mangled legs threaten to become gangrenous, do you leave him in agony? Or do you tap yourself to save his life by performing meatball surgery? ("There was the stench of the hot knife against Pablo's flesh, a cooking smell, meat burning … ")
We first meet our travelers—twentysomethings Stacy, Eric, Jeff, and Amy—at a tony Cancun resort. Smith seems to care little for them and furnishes them with spare biographies. Jeff is the ever-vigilant ex-Eagle Scout, Eric the sniffling whiner. Stacy and Amy are old college roommates who have developed a kind of passive-aggressive relationship. * They are lured into the jungle by a taciturn German named Mathias who insists, improbably, that his brother followed a woman to an ancient jungle ruin and hasn't been heard from since. Smith makes great hay of the team's entry into the interior, a sequence dripping with foreboding mise-en-scène of Saturday-morning serials and King Solomon's Mines. Locals won't meet their gaze; a Mexican cab-driver mutters, "No good you go to this place." Even the plants seem rather unwelcoming: "Already the foliage along the margins had begun to send out exploratory parties, vines and the occasional waist-high bush, looking somewhat pugnacious amid all the upturned clods of dirt."
Not just pugnacious but evil. Atop the aforementioned hill lies a killer vine. It is capable of luring tourists into its tendrils and relieving them of their bodily fluids. So wary are the locals that anyone who so much as brushes against the vine is quarantined atop the hill, lest he carry part of it back in his boots. It's here, in the realm of the wildly implausible (shades of not only King Solomon's Mines but Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World), that Smith really kicks into high gear. We proceed from one outrageous moral dilemma to another. The travelers ask themselves: What is preferable, immediate death at the hands of the villagers or a slow, torturous one at the top of the hill? If you're dying of thirst and only have a bottle of tequila, should you drink that, knowing it will only make you thirstier? As the food supplies run low, does your dead girlfriend's body count as, uh, meat?
But to what end? With a surprise windfall at its center, A Simple Plan was about the moral and ethical aspects of wealth—its dilemmas were, in a sense, the dilemmas of American life. There's nothing in The Ruins to suggest such a critique, and it's worth wondering about the purpose of all this carnage. Thrillers like Jaws have used ferocious wildlife as a metaphor for punishing human wickedness, but the characters here are hardly wicked, and Smith is no puritan. What Smith is attempting, I think, is a critique of the dangers of inaction. Nearly every rough patch the team finds itself in is a result not of bad choices but non-choices. He writes: "Inside, she was thinking, No, I don't want to go, but she knew she couldn't say this." And later: "He wanted her to say no, she knew. She wished she could, too, but knew she couldn't." Smith is laying into passivity, cowardice.
It's a slim conceit, but in the midst of the book's lethargic rhythms it becomes a beguiling one. If you've found yourself reading the Dan Brown canon, you've become accustomed to single-page chapters and regularly scheduled cliffhangers. The Ruins, which has no proper chapters, works like a slow-acting poison, a "thicker version of time," as one character puts it. Passivity is the enemy. "They were waiting with no apparent emotion at all," Smith writes in a nice passage, "as one might sit over the course of an evening, watching a candle methodically burn itself into darkness, never less than certain of the outcome, confident that the only thing standing between now and the end of waiting was time itself." Time, and a certain man-eating vine.
While it never achieves the eminence of King's Cujo or Thomas Harris' Hannibal Lecter, the vine does possess a great demonic resourcefulness. When our travelers feel remote and homesick, the vine mimics the sound of a cellular telephone; as they begin to starve, it smells of fresh bread and apple pie with just "a hint of cinnamon." Its means of attack is running one of its tendrils down your throat. There is no way to kill it, outside of parachuting in a few cases of herbicide. At which point an ethicist like Smith would probably ask: What's worse, death by vine or endangering the flora and fauna of the rain forest?