There are some books that should be pre-stamped “Coming Soon to a Theater Near You!” These books have about the depth of a summer movie, and the same simple, popcorn enjoyment. These are “beach books”—you read them once, often in one sitting, only to find them in the cheap box at a garage sale a couple summers later. Scott Smith’s The Ruins is once such beach-read. Unsuprisingly, this fast-paced thriller/gorefest was optioned for film rights by Ben Stiller’s production company before the publishing date. Scene by scene, you can practically see the film unpooling.
Smith’s only previous book was the highly respected A Simple Plan, which was made into a highly respected film where Smith himself penned the screenplay. Though nowhere near as clever and stylish as that story, you can see that Smith probably learned something in Hollywood about efficient storytelling. The Ruins wastes no time getting started, and the action is pared-down into a relentless series of events that is so efficient that he doesn’t even bother with chapters. The Ruins is one of those books where you wait for a break in the text to find a good place for your bookmark—but before you know it, you’ve missed your bus stop, and you’ve just read another 50 pages.
Four twenty-somethings—you know the type: two couples that are young, educated, white, with a future of successful possibility—go on a group trip to Cancún, Mexico for a few weeks. Theirs is a sort of slacker vacation, full of snorkelling, sunbathing, hikes, socializing, and lots and lots of drinking. They hang out with some goofy Greek guys despite no common language, and pal around with a German traveller named Mathias. Mathias originally came with his brother, who dumped him to go off into the jungle to hang out with a hot archaeology chick at a dig. Their flight back to Germany is coming up, so Mathias wants to go and find his brother in the jungle and haul him home. All he has is a hand-drawn map….
OK, you know already that shakily-sketched hand-drawn maps are trouble. Especially in foreign countries. Especially when the route takes you deep into the jungle where even the occasional stumbled-upon village only speaks Mayan and not even Spanish. Mathias doesn’t want to go alone, so one of the American guys Jeff volunteers to tag along, and before you know it, his girlfriend Amy, their pals Eric and Stacey, and even one of the non-English speaking Greeks that they only know as “Pablo” have joined on the quest to find the missing brother.
Since horror thrillers like this are all about the unfolding of events, the terror, and finally the doom, I won’t divulge too much. Let’s just say when the kids reach their destination in the jungle, they’ll wish they never came in the first place. I kind of scoffed that so much deterioration of events could occur in the short, efficient time-frame of the book, but then I remembered that when you are in a strange place, time often seems to stand still. We are so used to an 8-hour workday flying past with little fanfare, but when we travel, we are reminded how much drama can be had in a such a short time period.
The Ruins captures the spontaneous and fluid subculture of adventure travelling in the same way that Alex Garland’s The Beach did (though I thought The Beach was a better book) and will appeal to fans of that book. Smith doesn’t bother developing the individual characters too deeply, but you don’t really care. What readers want in a story like this is to predict who gets picked off first, and who, if anyone, will survive. Relentlessly building with dread and hopelessness, The Ruins builds to a finale which contains a really graphically nasty episode that had me throwing the book across the room with a disgusted, “GROSS!!!” But I grabbed the book again, re-opened it, and finished it off. Because that is the fun of popcorn books like these. Gosh darnit, when you are being taken for a ride, you want to follow through with it all the way to the puke-inducing end.