Sunday, March 5, 2017

The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger

Dawn at sea, a grey void emerging out of a vaster black one. "The earth was without form and darkness was upon the face of the deep." Whoever wrote that knew the sea--knew the pale emergence of the world every morning, a world that contained absolutely nothing, not one thing. 
I bought The Perfect Storm from a tiny bookstore on an island on the Outer Banks. I wanted a story about the sea, but also something that was going to be engaging. It was the perfect vacation read: immersive (no pun intended), fast paced, and more much more informative than anticipated. Junger puts his war reporting chops to good use and sets up The Perfect Storm as a battle. Each side is described in compelling detail; the crew of the Andrea Gail is captured with novelistic nuance, and the sea and storms are given a balance of sweeping description and scientific explanation.

I especially enjoyed the asides explaining the minutiae of how storms work. It felt reminiscent of the rambly digressions in Moby Dick about whale skeletons, but way more to the point and accessibly written. There is a massive amount of technical vocabulary around fishing and boating, so much of it that I had trouble visualizing some of the passages describing routines on the long-liners, but I actually enjoyed that struggle; I was engaged enough that I looked up the words I didn't know, and I learned a lot (do you know what a gangion is? a whaleback?). That being said, while Junger makes an effort to explain the meteorology and make it palatable to the average reader, a lot of his nautical descriptions, especially long, technical lists of boat parts, can be disorienting.

Junger does a decent job with a difficult task: recreating the final moments of a crew of people who clearly haven't left word about what they experienced. I often struggle with narrative nonfiction that recreates the inner life of historical figures--I get distracted by the fact that the author could not possibly know what anyone was actually thinking at any given moment--but Junger makes clear over and over that he is making educated guesses as to what happened and uses interviews and accounts from people who have been in similar situations to sketch out what the crew would have been experiencing. I had goosebumps throughout their final moments and was impressed with how convincingly Junger was able to portray what may have happened.

Having seen the movie, I had expected the story to end with the demise of the Andrea Gail (spoiler alert: everyone dies), but there are another 100 pages or so outlining the various other catastrophes brought on by the storm. Junger balances the hypothesizing he had to do with the Andrea Gail crew with accounts from other men and women who were out on the water--fishermen, rescue crews, and family members.

I really enjoyed this book. It wasn't particularly intellectual or lofty, but it was totally riveting in a way I don't usually expect nonfiction to be. It was emotionally engaging, had new and interesting science for me to sink my teeth into, and transported me somewhere else. Even basically knowing how everything turns out, I was totally hooked.

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