Zebra Summer—Item #5: Rip Tide by Donald D. Cheatham

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Book Review by Zakary McGaha

In Zebra Summer, Zakary McGaha (author of Locker Arms and Soothing the Savage Swamp Beast) chronicles a very specific portion of his summer reading schedule: horror novels published by Zebra Books.

To my knowledge, Rip Tide is the only shark attack book published by Zebra. It’s a blatant rip-off of Jaws, which doesn’t bother me considering there wouldn’t be a shark attack sub-genre if everyone was uptight about that sort of thing, but it’s funny when you consider the details: the tiger shark in Rip Tide is said to be 26 feet long…a whole inch longer than the Great White in Jaws (the movie version) is said to be.

A labrador retriever dies and the main character is a cop at the beach who also happens to be attempting to escape the stress that comes with being a city cop. There are probably some other not-so-subtle things I missed, but the “inspiration” Jaws had on this book is apparent. Even the overall book design is similar, from the cover to the plain-white back and spine. Oh, and this one also doesn’t sport the “Horror” distinction on the spine, instead opting for “Fiction.” I’m guessing Zebra wanted this to be their big, summer blockbuster.

To say that Rip Tide is a mess would be the understatement of the year. There are so many odd details I picked up while reading this book that I found myself wondering if it was all intentional. My final summation is: no, it wasn’t. Judging from the acknowledgements and stuff, it seems as if this was Cheatham’s first novel, so, yeah…he probably didn’t know what he was doing.

This review is probably going to be longer than the other ones, but that’s because there’s so much shit to cover. Also, there WILL be spoilers, so if you were lucky enough to find this book for below $80 (I snagged mine before it was rare) and are planning on reading it, go ahead and do so. Okay, now on to the strangeness…

First off, this is the only book I’ve ever read in which there is a recurring fixation/obsession with Holiday Inn. Cheatham even THANKS them for putting up with him or something in his acknowledgements section, which leads one to assume that he wrote Rip Tide in one, but who knows. I believe this fixation/obsession started long before he wrote this novel.

Characters are always meeting up at the Holiday Inn, having drinks at the Holiday Inn, and at one point near the end of the novel—when a massive hurricane has destroyed big sections of Florida—the Holiday Inn is described as standing tall while there are several other hotels that didn’t make it!

In addition to the Holiday Inn fixation, this book forgets that it’s a shark book near the end. Recall the hurricane I just mentioned. Okay, so after the shark has already eaten a lot of people and the local authorities have commissioned an all-out shark hunt—like in Jaws—this hurricane that Cheatham has been hyping up for a bit finally hits, and from then on the hurricane is the focus of the novel. Sure, the shark pops up time and again in the hurricane, but not as much as you’d think.

Normally, I wouldn’t mind this. I don’t like stories that simply go through the motions; I like new things being added. But, in this case, it’s odd because the novel just drops what’s been its main focus throughout its entirety. The shark goes from being front and center to being in the background in a split second. HOWEVER, it’s during the hurricane part of the book that Cheatham shows he can actually write. It’s full of gory imagery, fast-paced writing, and actual suspense. Too bad it took him an entire novel’s length to figure out how to do that.

The bulk of the book, before the hurricane shit happens, is rather dull and odd. As mentioned above, Holiday Inn is popping up nonstop, plus there’s tons of cheesiness that comes off awkward as opposed to 80s-ish.

Our main character’s name is Michael Stark…which pisses me off for some reason. And he’s a Vietnam vet/small-town cop who has flashbacks of, not Vietnam, but St. Louis.

Yes.

St. Louis.

Oh, every now and then he’ll say something like, “I’ve seen worse than this back in ‘Nam,” in regards to the shark attacks (I’m not going to find the actual passage because I actually have a life…as in I have other books to read), but most of the time St. Louis is on his mind.
The St. Louis thing also made him famous.

Basically, one of his fellow soldiers went crazy after the war and started gunning people down. Stark, being a cop, made it his personal mission to track the crazy sumbitch down and put him out of his misery. Traumatized afterward, he decided to move to Florida where things are quieter…except for the SHARKS! Well, scratch that…except for the hurricanes.

The weirdest part about the St. Louis incident is that its flashback reads as if it were an abandoned novel. There’s no way to know, for sure, but it’s not written in brief snippets. No, this St. Louis thing derails the story for a second, and all of a sudden you’re following a slightly younger Michael Stark as he figures out what’s up with this crazy mass-shooter. To say that it’s cheesy would be redundant, because the whole novel’s cheesy.

As a main character, Michael Stark is annoying. He’s constantly saying more un-PC things than your drunk granddad, and he’s described as being so mature that ladies can’t get enough of him. One thing that happens several times, thus competing with the Holiday Inn motif, is that Stark will meet a female peer (be it a fellow cop or coroner who works with the cops) and be surprised that she’s a female, then said woman will flirtatiously put him in his place concerning his old-fashioned ways, and then she won’t be able to stop flirting with him. Literally every woman in this Florida tourist trap can’t get enough of Stark, despite the fact that several of them, if I remember correctly, lament about how he’s old enough to be their dad.

The main problem with Michael Stark is that he’s the male counterpart of a Mary Sue. He’s too perfect…except for the end when he gets scared by the hurricane, then gets drunk, then pisses his pants.

The constant stream of flirtation Rip Tide provides is enough to keep you entertained, because it’s all so bad. I’m not going to paraphrase what was written in one of the sex scenes, but damn: it’s so corny, it comes on the cob! (yeah, that was bad; I know)

There’s also a section in which the three main cops of the small town’s PD, Stark included, go “undercover” to investigate a rape at a nude beach, and by “undercover,” I mean they go naked. It contains some of the cheesiest writing I’ve ever witnessed. Here’s an example, taken from one of the rare instances in which the main characters come into contact with the shark.

Page 228: “Screams started down the beach like an echo in a canyon. They began at the north end of the beach and traveled faintly down toward the hotels. Liza started giving CPR—cardiopulmonary resuscitation—to a man in his fifties who had a heart attack.”

That’s a perfect example of how AWFUL Cheatham’s writing is. He doesn’t know when to get to the point of what he’s wanting to say, nor does he have the skill to make his endless fluff sound good. Like, who was he kidding? Did he really think he should include “cardiopulmonary resuscitation” in the text? CPR would’ve sufficed. Also, it’s pretty anticlimactic to have time be spent on a random old dude who wasn’t even in the water at the time of the shark attack when there’s plenty of mayhem going on in the water.

Let me reiterate the main points and conclude this beast: the majority of Rip Tide is spent NOT on cool stuff but on Michael Stark getting acquainted with his new town. And by that, I mean meeting peers at hotels—yes, mostly the Holiday Inn—and telling them he’ll buy them a drink later.

If I had a dollar for every time someone said, “Let me by you a drink,” or, “I’ll take you up on that drink later,” I’d be able to buy at least a better novel in hardback. Time is also spent, as mentioned, on Stark being flirted with by damn near every female character.

Time is ALSO spent on Stark spying on nudists from his condo’s balcony with the assistance of a telescope (SIDE NOTE: at one point, a nudist woman is apparently psychically aware of Stark watching her—I know, it doesn’t make sense—so she starts pleasuring herself, in public, for his benefit). Oh yeah, and there’s a hurricane that destroys everything, but SPOILER: Stark, and the largely forgotten shark, both survive.

I actually give this novel 3/5…which surprises me more than anyone…because I was able to stay into it. I didn’t dread finishing it like I do some of the horrible shit Zebra put out. Cheatham, while being a fucking awful writer, was at least able to entertain me for a couple hours.

What the hell my ratings mean: 1 star = I didn’t enjoy it, and I’m fairly certain I can objectively say the book sucks ass. 2 stars = I didn’t enjoy it at all, but I can’t in good conscience say it was an objectively bad book (in other words, I wouldn’t be surprised if everyone else loved it). 3 stars = a book I enjoyed quite a bit, but it had several flaws that made me unable to honestly say it was a great book. 4 stars = a great book without any serious flaws. 5 stars = made my soul feel tingly and changed my worldview (usually reserved for classics like Siddhartha and The Magic Mountain).

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