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A Simple Plan ()

I read this book when we first moved up here, because the young author was a recent Dartmouth grad and there were stories about him all over the place.  Supposedly he had asked his parents for $10,000 and a year of room and board so that he could write the book.  Then, upon completion, the movie rights alone sold for millions.  I can't vouch for all of that.

On first reading, I just thought that Smith had taken a decent thriller and lost control of it about three quarters of the way through.  On a snowy New Year's Eve, two brothers & a friend find a plane wreck on a farm in Northern Ohio.  Inside the plane they find a raven pecked corpse and a duffel bag containing $4.4 million.  Hank Mitchell is married (to Sarah) with a child on the way and has a job as an accountant at a local feed store; he wants to notify the authorities.  But his brother Jacob and Jacob's friend, Lou, are ne'er do wells who want to keep the money.  Hank finally agrees but only on the condition that he hold the money, they not tell anyone about the plane, they not divvy the loot up until summer and then only if the coast looks clear and he will burn it if there is any sign of trouble.  Predictably, complications arise.

Surprisingly, noone comes to claim the money and noone finds the plane.  But Jacob and Lou prove increasing unreliable--drinking, gambling and gabbing.  And when Hank and Jacob end up committing murder to cover their trail, Jacob tells Lou about it and Lou promptly tries using his knowledge to extort money from Hank.  Hank and Sarah try figuring out ways to control the other two, but perhaps inevitably, the only solution proves to be killing them.  Having killed three men, including his own brother, Hank ends up committing several other increasingly violent and unnecessary murders as the money recedes into the background and not getting caught becomes the only imperative.  By the end of the book, he is just roaming through a convenience store hacking people to death with a machete.

All of that just seemed a little much the first time around and I still think that Smith loses his grip on the reader in the final quarter of the book.  But on second reading, more prepared for the excesses of the plot and willing to grant them a sort of internal logic, the themes of the story emerged for me and I really liked them.  At it's core, this is a Puritan fable as filtered through the uniquely American lens of noir fiction; the fundamental lesson, that easy money is corrupting:

     Lou: All this money staring you right in the face.  It's the American dream, and you just want to
    walk away from it.

    Hank: You work for the American dream, Lou.  You don't steal it.

Hank ignores this lesson at his own peril and like Cain (he even gets wounded on the forehead) he destroys the brother who never understood the lesson.  This crime, and the subsequent ones, end up ruining his life, but in the end he tells us:

    I feel--despite everything I've done that might make it seem otherwise--human, exactly like everyone

Of course, he is eminently human, but he stands as a nearly biblical example of what happens when man places himself beyond moral constraints (for an amusing illustration of this, see the grade schooler's review below).

The book is flawed.  Smith, a first time author, was badly served, as are most writers today, by his editor.  But it's, at least, a fun read and maybe an interesting one.  It's well worth a try and the author bears watching.  One hopes he is not a one trick pony.


Grade: (C+)


See also:

Book-related and General Links:
    -REVIEW: Choosing Evil  (Rosellen Brown, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: Plotter's Stupidity Saved By Stupidity of Others (MICHIKO KAKUTANI, NY Times)
    -Ed's Internet Book Review: Mystery/Suspense/Thriller (Maddy Van Hertbruggen)
    -REVIEW: (by a grade schooler)

    -Official site
    -REVIEW: "A Simple Plan" avoids the shallow grave (Salon)
    -REVIEW: (Roger Ebert)

    -A Simple Plan (1998)(directed by Sam Raimi)


yeah, the book was interesting and took some unexpected turns, but the constant stupudity that the main character displayed over and over again was so over-the-top that i just wanted him to kill himself so that the book could end. Orrin is right, the author lost control of the book, except I would argue he did so a lot sooner than 3/4 of the way through.

- B-

- Jul-06-2006, 13:01


i read the book in my fifth year of high school and i felt that the book was a brilliant had all the things that could easily happen in real life and i could understand where the writer was coming from. However i felt the ending was a little dissapointing. He could have thought of a much better way to end the story. Overall it was a good book and would read it again. I'd give it a grade of... B+

- N.Cameron

- Oct-15-2005, 08:27


I think your review is harsh on the book and the author. I think the book deserves an A. It gripped me from beginning till the end. I loved the book, althoughit depressed me at the end as I felt the characters pain. I mean , I could relate to that in real life. I felt the authors pain all through out. Best book I ever read.


- LiX

- Jun-01-2005, 17:07


after reading it, I also felt what Hank had. It was just sad that because of his fear, he was able to kill a lot of people. Ilove it

- aizadar

- Feb-12-2005, 23:19