f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: Moral Books Day 4 – You’ve Chosen…Unwisely – Bad Choices in A Simple Plan

f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n

Friday, October 22, 2004

Moral Books Day 4 – You’ve Chosen…Unwisely – Bad Choices in A Simple Plan

How do you feel about punches to the stomach? Slaps upside the head? How do you feel about willfully throwing your emotions into a meat-grinder or running full-speed into a brick wall? How do you feel about the music of Nine Inch Nails? The movies of Lars von Trier? The paintings of Edvard Munch? I ask these things because going with Scott Smith into his Simple Plan…well, it’s no walk in the park.

Mini-plot Synopsis: On their way to carryout their annual visit to their father’s grave site two brothers and a friend find a downed plane filled with cash. The pilot is dead. Nobody seems to be looking for the money. It’s the simplest thing in the world to divide it by three and just wait….

First off, if I’m honest, this is one of my favorite books of the last decade or so. I think I read it in early 1998 and it hit me like a 2 x 4. Remember the scales we did two weeks ago and how we talked about the balance between story and writing and how the great books are perfect 5’s? This is pure 5.

Told in first person from Hank Mitchell’s perspective, it’s just a relentless story. It’s as bleak and cold as the Ohio winter day on which it starts and as dark as the writings of James Cain, David Gaddis, Jim Thompson, or any other noir masters. And the amazing this is that it’s just continually shocking.

The reason is you and me, we’re Hank Mitchell. Look at that name. Hank Mitchell. Could there be a more common, everyman’s moniker. Hank Mitchell is a good guy. We want him to be a good guy. He’s not a sociopath trying to con us into liking him. He’s not evil incarnate like a Peter Straub or Stephen King villain. (An aside—woke up the other night fixated on wicked creepy scenes from Peter Straub’s lost boy lost girl, a book I read perhaps eight months ago. That’s when you know a book is effective, when it still freaks you out 240 days later.)

Hank Mitchell is a man who makes a bad choice. And then a second bad choice to cover the first. And then another. And then another. Trent Reznor called one of his album’s The Downward Spiral and there’s not a more effective image to describe the process. It’s a chilling examination of the simple morality of our choices. It’s also a chilling examination of how easily we can talk ourselves into something we know isn’t quite right.

The epigraph to the book—which comes from Mary Wollstonecraft, whose daughter would elaborate on this very idea to great effect—says, “No man chooses evil because it is evil; he only mistakes it for happiness, the good he seeks.”

That’s a fantastic theme for a book, especially a book you’re willing to let end bad. Because there’s as much to be learned from tragedy—and often more—as there is from the happy life.