Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Deep Survival by Laurence Gonzales

After breaking his leg on a 20,000-foot peak in the Peru during a blizzard, Joe Simpson was given up for dead. Without food or water or a tent, he spent six days crawling off the mountain and back to camp. How did he do it?

As the skipper of a sunken yacht slipped over the side of his life raft into the Atlantic night, his four horrified crew members heard him calmly explain, "I'm going to get the car." Then they listened to his screams as he was eaten alive by sharks.

This book is pretty BAMF. You can tell just by looking at the cover - it has two subtitles in addition to the main one - "True Stories of Miraculous Endurance and Sudden Death" and "Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why." Too much much bad-ass-mother-fuckery for just one subtitle. If the two subtitles don't suck you in, the hook on the inside cover, excerpted above, certainly will. This book reminded me of paging through my grandmother's old Readers Digest magazines, looking for the story every month that featured lightning strikes or killer crocodiles. I used to eat those stories up. An entire book of those stories, compiled into one nifty volume for the pleasure of my vicarious excitement? Man eaten alive by sharks? Sign me up.

No matter that Laurence Gonzales writes like a high school newspaper reporter - replete with cursing, exclamation points, and useless adjectives like "stupid" to describe harrowing situations - the stories he tells make up for it. Mostly. There's the story of Joe Simpson described above, whose climbing partner actually cuts his belay rope and lets him fall off a mountain to save himself. And Simpson survived. There's the story of Steven Callahan, who set out to cross the Atlantic in his boat and was struck by a whale just a few days out. He spent 65 days adrift crossing the Atlantic on a life raft, catching fish and drinking 1/2 a pint of water per day until he ran into a Caribbean island on the other side. He lived too. And finally, there's the story of Gonzales' own father, who was shot down over German territory in 1944, survived having every limb broken and his nose cut off, and then survived being a POW for several months until liberation, losing over 50 pounds in the process. There are also stories about the people that didn't survive - people like the poor guy above, deluded by a sodium overload in his brain (caused by drinking seawater) into thinking he was back at the dock when he was really in the middle of the Atlantic.

Okay, Gonzales also has this rather annoying habit of inserting stories about himself into every other paragraph. Dude's done some crazy stuff. He flights plane acrobatics; he's been to Ranger school; he dives, he climbs, and he once sensed a major jet crash was imminent and got off the plane, Final Destination-style. I think he wrote this book partly as a vehicle to talk about the stuff he's already done and partly to have an excuse to do more stuff like go to Mountain Survival School and interview extreme alpinists.

The thesis of "Deep Survival" is that some people have it in them to survive and some do not. The question is largely mental, but can be affected by experience and emotional stability too. The book is broken into two parts: How Accidents Happen (systemic failures; accidents exist as a key part of any system and there is nothing to do to stop them - but you can make sure you are not involved when they happen) and Survival. The second half was definitely more engaging and interesting to me. It had all the stories I had been waiting for when I first read that glorious teaser on the inside book cover.

I'm really into disasters and survival stories, so I was willing to overlook this book's obvious flaws. If you are easily angered by overzealous writing, don't read this one.


Nihil Novum said...

I totally had this pegged as Jim review until I saw the byline.

billy said...

damn right. my girl likes her disasters