Phil Harvey has crafted a psychological thriller that takes reality shows, and in fact much of our popular culture, just one step further into a realm of true horror. His novel about the ultimate survivor program places seven flawed individuals on an island in the middle of Lake Michigan as winter approaches.
Each one who survives wins $200,000, but the producers clearly expect that not all will collect the money. The individuals ― four men and three women ― are carefully selected for not being well balanced, in the assumption that this will lead to sex, violence and other action that will boost ratings.
Television viewers follow the fate of the seven participants through a series of cameras and mics mounted on the island, as well as shots from an orbiting satellite and a drone that passes over the island. The seven (victims, one is tempted to say) are each given a certain amount of food, which is not enough to last the seven months they are to stay there, as well as varied tools ― a flashlight for one, a map for another, a couple of rifles with a few dozen bullets.
Ambrose, a compulsive gambler who enters the contest to pay off his debts, emerges as the natural leader of the group. Though married, he pairs off with Cecily, who is also married and who had the good sense to put on several extra pounds before beginning the contest. Other contestants include a Navy Seal who communicates in two-word mumbles, an African American who has made his way through society conforming to racial stereotypes, a bisexual woman who maintains a regimen of exercise and yoga, a model with certain nymphomaniac tendencies and a tightly wrapped young man full of resentment who refuses to cooperate in joint survival strategies.
The novel realistically conveys a certain preoccupation with sex among these seven nubile people in survival mode. Maureen, the model, plays a key role for the participants as well as for the show’s audience. No matter how titillating the sexual expression of emotion may be for the viewers, it is, in Harvey’s skilled hands, simply a natural mechanism for coping with the need to survive.
The narrative becomes increasingly chilling ― both literally and figuratively ― as the mild autumn days, when the participants have ample food from their stocks and the island’s wildlife, give way to the cold and ice and snow of a Michigan winter. Under Ambrose’s leadership, the survival crew develops a strategy for rationing supplies, sharing game and even creating a “clear zone” where they can disable enough of the mics and cameras to have a place for meetings that are not overheard by the producers or the audience.
That is how they are able to hatch a staged drama of their own to play a trick on the producers and get some measure of revenge for being exploited. Their deception works until a careless remark on a hidden mic gives it away; the producers then violate the terms of the contract by intervening in the action and guiding the situation to their satisfaction.
While there is some mystery in all this, the author reveals in the opening chapter that one of the participants has died, creating the inevitable dilemma of every survival drama in which people are faced with starvation. Part of the suspense is how the other six contestants reach that point and how they resolve it.
But it is mostly Harvey’s skill in delving into the psychology of the individuals that keeps the reader turning the pages. And he does it not through any heavy-handed interior monologues but through the dialogue and interaction of the individuals. The book would easily lend itself not only to a successful movie script but to an intense stage play.
The reader comes to know these individuals, to sympathize with them in spite of ― eventually even because of ― their flaws, and to root for them in their fight against not only nature but also the unnatural culture that has put them in their situation.
The producers, led by Janice, who is a virtual sociopath, remain cardboard foils for this action. They are simply part of the hostile environment challenging the contestants. One or two of the plot twists require a heavy dose of suspended disbelief from the reader. Harvey maintains a quiet buildup of suspense, but the climax and denouement may not reach the intensity expected by some readers.
So don’t expect fireworks. There is plenty of drama in this novel, but it remains subtle. There is catharsis, but it is not complete. In this sense, the novel is more realistic than its somewhat contrived plot, or even some of the reality shows it is based on, might suggest. It is a thinking reader’s psychological thriller and as such a thoroughly entertaining read.