James Fallows reminded me of Scott Smith’s A Simple Plan, a novel that is anything but simple and about a deceptively easy opportunity for huge money. Taking the cash, however, cascades into hell like a modern version of Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, published nearly 400 years earlier.
A Simple Plan follows societally unimportant men as they squabble for money each thinks will give him a place in the larger world. I don’t know whether Smith thought of the legend of Faust—which has also been covered by Goethe and Thomas Mann, but it is hard to miss the parallels, with power in the form of money coming at the expense of spiritual and moral well-being, ultimately leading toward an end that, as we are told early, is unlikely to be good. Within 30 pages, Hank says he might’ve turned the money in to Sheriff Jenkins “before it had a chance to unravel and entangle us all,” but his choices toward dancing with the devil eventually leave him with nowhere to go but forward into darkness.
Modern literature doesn’t necessarily need a literal manifestation of the devil to present his offer. Hank begins succumbing to the metaphorical lure even before encountering Jenkins, saying: “The dynamic of [the] relationship [between him and Jacob] had shifted, I realized. I was in control now; I was the spoiler, the one who would decide what happened to the money.” A page later, the vague sense of the supernatural is invoked when Hank says the find is “like a gift from the gods.” But the gods don’t often give gifts unencumbered by strings. This interplay among fate, power, and choice plays throughout the novel, with each choice making it harder to give up the money until finally Hank feels he can’t, leading inexorably to the end. This end is different than Marlowe’s Faustus but still a study in the ways of power, this one not from a pygmy rather than epic point of view.
A Simple Plan also implicitly argues that three can keep a secret if two are dead, as Benjamin Franklin said. Corpses pile up early and eventually to tragic proportions, leading one away from the real (how can cops miss so many?) and toward the traditional forms of tragedy. This interplay between old and recent literary developments, as well as the greed and compassion of the characters, gives A Simple Plan lasting resonance, as does Smith’s direct, understated, and mostly excellent writing (an exception: “My heart was beating thickly in my temples”). Most often, though, the prose never impedes and usually enhances the story, with Hank’s pathos mingling with monstrousness as he chooses a path that is at first horrifying and then, to the reader, more horrifying still as consorting with the devil becomes more normal.