Could there have been a better week here in the Bay Area to read this book? We’re in the middle of a week of storms here (I know it’s nothing compared to the rain we get in Singapore and in the UK, but the Bay Area has been in need of rain for a while now). So with the wind lashing raindrops against our front door, I read The Perfect Storm: A True Story of Men Against the Sea. It might have been the inspiration for the movie starring George Clooney but the book far surpasses the celluloid version.
You might already know the story, which is essentially about the Andrea Gail, a fishing boat that gets caught in what meteorologists call a perfect storm when out at sea and disappears.
The problem with the movie was (I hope this isn’t a spoiler for you) how would anyone know what really happened on the boat when there were no survivors (or any trace of the boat for that matter)?
Junger solves this issue by carefully stating right at the start of the book that he stuck “strictly to the facts”. And to understand what happened aboard the boat, he interviewed people who had been through similar situations and survived.
The Perfect Storm is a truly amazing book. While telling the story of the men at sea and their days leading up to the storm, Junger splices in information about the fishing industry, life on a fishing vessel, pararescue jumpers and more, so cleanly and effectively, that a layperson like me, who doesn’t have a clue about fishing or boating, didn’t feel bogged down by the information. Admittedly, the bits about fishing can be quite technical but that might be helped by first viewing the movie to get an idea of what the sword boats look like.
It isn’t just about the facts. There is such emotion here. For the sea, for example, Junger writes:
“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.”
And on their last day on land, just before the men head out to sea:
“It’s now way too late for anyone to back out. Not in the literal sense – any one of them could still take off running out the door – but people don’t work like that. More or less, they do what others expect them to. If one of the crew backed out now he’d sit around for a month and then either go to a welcome-home party or a memorial service. Either would be horrible in its own way. Half the crew have misgivings about this trip, but they’re going anyhow; they’ve crossed some invisible line, and now even the most desperate premonitions won’t save them. Tyne, Pierre, Sullivan, Moran, Murphy, and Shatford are going to the Grand Banks on the Andrea Gail.”
As I mentioned above, Junger used the experiences of those who survived similar situations to illustrate what might have happened aboard the Andrea Gail. For instance, he tells of the situation on board the Japanese fishing vessel Eishin Maru 78, which is twice the size of the Andrea Gail and was itself floundering in that very storm. Judith Reeves, a Canadian observer on board, says: “It was a confused sea, all the waves were coming from different directions. The wind was picking up the tops of the waves and slinging them so far that when the search-and-rescue plane arrived, we couldn’t even see it. The whole vessel would get shoved over on its side, so that we were completely upside-down.” What an absolutely terrifying thing to have to experience.
This is what a non-fiction read should be – it has great form and flow, and continues to interest the reader throughout the book, and the writing allows one to be absorbed into this close-knit fishing community of Gloucester, Massachusetts. Junger has obviously done a lot of research for this work but what amazed me was his ability to coax a story from the interviews he carried out with the friends and family members of those who died. Can you imagine having to ask them to relive those days all over again?
PS: After reading this, I was pretty excited to learn that Linda Greenlaw, the captain of the Andrea Gail’s sister ship, has written several books herself.
Glad you liked it! I remember the part where Junger describes drowning – I found reading that part to be very intense. I didn’t realize a non-fiction book could evoke that kind of emotion in me. I credit The Perfect Storm for the fact that I include a steady intake of non-fiction in my reading.
I have read and own The Hungry Ocean by Linda Greenlaw. As with The Perfect Storm, it’s been a while. It’s not as good, but I remember being intrigued by Greenlaw’s descriptions of being a woman in a male-dominated profession.
I do wish I had read it earlier, maybe that would have resulted in my reading more non-fiction! I’m hoping to read more by Junger, and I was just reading this interview he did with Powells, where he said, “In The Perfect Storm, I was very interested in what happens when you drown. And that turned out to be a section that people really liked. I didn’t know that when I wrote it; I wrote it because I was interested in it.”
Thanks for your thoughts on Greenlaw’s book! I do think I’ll give it a go. She sounds like an interesting person!
[…] Colours – Orhan Pamuk Hungry: A Mother and Daughter Fight Anorexia – Sheila and Lisa Himmel The Perfect Storm – Sebastian Junger Not Becoming My Mother – Ruth […]
Comments are closed.