Review: The Wages of Fear

American paperback cover.

I’m a long-time fan of the French film Le Salaire de la peur, a.k.a. The Wages of Fear, as well at its big-budget American remake, Sorcerer. Both tell essentially the same story of losers hired to drive trucks of nitroglycerin to extinguish an oil fire, and while the details differ greatly, the ultimate thematic point remains the same: the universe doesn’t really care.

I read the original novel by Georges Arnaud many years ago, but recently re-read it and found a revelation. All I can say is…wow.  From the perspective of 1952, Arnaud pegs the heart of economic darkness that still engulfs us today, and details its cost in lives, material, and broken spirits.  It was true in the 1950s when it was written, in the 1980s when I first read it, and today.

Clocking in at less than 200 pages, Arnaud skips much of the character-building found in both film versions. He tells us enough so that we understand, if not exactly sympathize, with the men who undertake this dangerous mission. The main character, a Frenchman named Gerard, is a hard and bitter man who, like the other Europeans in the story, have fetched up in Guatemala for lack of anywhere else to land. When a distant oil rig is destroyed and the only nitro available is three hundred miles away, Gerard and three others are hired to drive two trucks (the assumption being one truck will probably not make it) of the stuff to the fire. The road conditions are treacherous, the tropical heat requires them to drive at night, and not all of them have the courage they profess. But the fear of the title is the real enemy, described in voluptuous prose:

Fear…it was there, riding on their backs, huge, mindless and oppressive.  Fear in the guts, and nowhere to run to.  Still, there is one thing one can do with fear: one can refuse to accept it.  A special dispensation from the devil, and one rejects it.  So then it waits, just outside the door. (p. 81)

This is not a cheery book about heroes by any means. It’s about the courage of desperation, and the caprices of fate. It’s also a rip-snorting adventure filled with detail about things the author clearly knows a lot about. I admire its lean, no-bullshit prose (translated, to be sure, but I bet it was just as hard-core in the original French). One of my own goals as a writer is to pare down each story to only the necessary bits, and this is a perfect example of it. It’s also a lesson in pacing, the use of realistic detail and knowing how much is just enough.

Is it better than the movies based on it? Hard to say. Both are (rightly, to my mind) considered classics. Steven King even groups them together as the top of his “Reliable Rentals” list. The original novel is a slightly different journey to the same destination, and it shines a alternate light on a story that may be familiar from the films. And for writers, it’s a master’s-level lesson in the power of economy.

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