29 September 2011

Where is Catherine Deneuve?

The Shrewsdale Exit
John Buell
New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1972

Read the book, see the movie. Always thought that was the way to do it, so I have only myself to blame for spoiling The Shrewsdale Exit. Buell's third novel, it begins blandly – intentionally so, I think – with a family vacation:
They ordered sandwiches and beer, a Coke for the little girl, and were served in good time. They weren't in a hurry. They were going to the coast, to work their way along the ocean, camping where possible and staying in boarding houses when necessary. They talked as they ate, and in a short time they were about finished.
Within an hour – it could be two – mother and daughter are raped and murdered by a motorcycle gang. The father is left for dead, but is really only knocked out. Things move quickly in this novel; six weeks follow, during which the man buys a gun, plugs the thugs, is sent to prison and escapes into a world of pastoral beauty.

I'm spoiling things here, but not nearly as much as my reading experience was spoiled by the 1975 movie adaptation, L'agression, posted on YouTube:

Jean-Patrick Manchette's screenplay moves the action from somewhere (but not anywhere) in the United States to southern France. Buell's unwashed, wild bikers appear as efficient, faceless contract killers – characters in conspiracy. Jean-Louis Trintignant is cast as the vengeful husband and father, playing opposite Catherine Deneuve, who brings beauty and talent to the role of Sarah.


Sarah is not in the Buell's novel. In fact, not a word or action from la déesse de l'amour features in the book. Silly me, turning the pages I kept expecting her to appear.

I'm placing too much blame on the film. The Shrewsdale Exit is a weak novel with a strong start; the shift from the mundane to the violent is jarring, horrific and uncomfortably real. But when our hero enters prison plausibility passes, and the sure hand that wrote The Pyx and Four Days becomes shaky. In the third act, it brings us as close as I ever want to get to a Jeanette Oke farm. It's no coincidence that L'agression draws on the beginning, and only the beginning. But don't see the movie, read the book... the first 166 pages, at least.

Trivia: The L'agression soundtrack was written, in part, by Robert Charlebois (who also plays a biker). I offer this brief sample:

The very music that made the Sex Pistols seem so very attractive.

Object: A hardcover with green cloth boards with a bland dust jacket by Larry Ratzkin. The English Angus & Robertson first edition cover image trades the green road sign for blue, but is otherwise identical.

Access: The Farrar, Straus & Giroux and Angus & Robertson editions received no second printings, though there were a couple of subsequent editions in mass market paperback: Pocket (1973), Carroll & Graf (1984). I've yet to find evidence that it was included in the 1991 HarperCollins Canada trade paper reissues of Buell's novels. Canadian library users are encouraged to visit their university libraries. As far as public libraries go, only that serving the suffering residents of Toronto satisfies. As always – well, nearly always – Library and Archives Canada fails.


  1. I've read this novel twice, and I'm wondering on what evidence one would say that it takes place "somewhere in the United States"?

    -- Michael Washburn

  2. Ah, after Buell's first two novels, I was looking out for some indication as to setting. Things again seem vague - not needlessly, I hasten to add. I first noticed that Buell refers to "troopers", then came upon this on page 123 of the FSG edition: "Two hours later he was well into another state and into a thriving big small-town where he had breakfast and waited for nine o'clock to be sure the stores where open."

    Twice, you say. Perhaps I'll give it another read - after Playground and A Lot to Make Up For. I still think The Pyx and (especially) Four Days are unjustly neglected.

    A few sentences later we find: "He was in a state that had few restrictions on firearms."

    Not a lot, I know, but enough to place the action south of the border.

    Twice, you say. Must give it another read - after Playground and A Lot to Make Up For.

  3. You make a good point. Do Canadians never refer to provinces or regions of them as states? I guess not. My real disagreement here is over the merits of the novel. I think it's much better than you give it credit for. The suspense builds over the course of what seems like a fairly formulaic revenge narrative, and then the whole thing ends in a very satisfying fashion, but most emphatically without the familiar climactic showdown between protagonist and villain. I was surprised and pleased with the way Buell pulled this one off.

    I strongly recommend Playground. It's as vividly and tightly written as a northern version of Deliverance, but there are no human villains in this one.

    -- Michael Washburn

  4. Yes, provinces are provinces and are never referred to as states. I should have added that firearms legislation falls to the federal government - restrictions are the same, regardless of province or territory.

    I too appreciated the break from the formulaic revenge narrative. Interesting to note, I think, that The Shrewsdale Exit and Brian Garfield's Death Wish were first published in the same year.

    As I say, I must give Buell's third another read.