The Perfect Storm, Sebastian Junger

Harper, 1997, 301 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-06-101351-X

Humans are not aquatic creatures. Even though our lineage most probably goes back to an H2O-saturated environment at some point, we’re the product of a few million years of straight land-based evolution. We are, in our current form, ridiculously ill-equipped to cope with water in large quantities.

Maybe that why so much good literature has been about the sea. Melville’s Moby Dick, Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, Monsarrat’s The Cruel Sea, etc… As comfortable landlubbers, we often forget how fundamentally inhospitable the ocean can be. Now here comes Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm to remind us of it once again.

In October 1991, a combination of factors along the northeastern Atlantic coast all contributed to the creation of “a perfect storm” —a storm that could not have been worse. Caught in the middle of it: The Andrea Gail, a commercial fishing boat with a crew of six men. They never made it back to port. The Perfect Storm is, in part, the story of their demise.

Not a cheery premise for a documentary, nor an easy one. How can we know what happened aboard a boat which disappeared at sea? Junger confronts the question in the introduction by stating up-front that he’s using descriptions of similar events to describe the fate of the Andrea Gail, that he resisted the impulsion to make up quotes, that he interviewed friends and relatives to get an idea of the men’s last days on shore. And, by and large, the book plays fair to this ideal, neither inventing or dramatizing facts. The narrative is filled with “it might have been the case”, “did these men…?”, “in similar cases” and other carefully-modulated modifiers. It doesn’t matter: The book creates a convincing aura of authenticity.

Junger also sidesteps the question by adding other elements than the disappearance of the Andrea Gail to The Perfect Storm. We get to see the end of a yacht cruise, hair-raising rescues by National Guardsman and other dramatic events that happened during the storm of 1991. This broad focus helps maintain the interest in he book long after the Andrea Gail has gone under.

As for the quality of the book itself… well, it’s obvious from the start that The Perfect Storm will be a superior read. Honest human interest bolsters technical details about the fishing industry and the result is both highly informative and compulsively readable. Junger not only did his research, but presents it in a way that’s almost unequalled. Few books attain the level of intense fascination created by Junger. The result is a memorable work of documentary fiction.

A movie script has been adapted from The Perfect Storm, and is -as of this writing- undergoing the final stages of the primary shooting. It remains to be seen if the film will be able to translate Junger’s carefully researched facts and documentary vulgarization to the big screen. Initial gut reaction would seem to indicate otherwise and this, coupled to the anti-dramatic structure and the unhappy finale, might not presage well for the finished product. Still…

The potential appeal for the book itself, in the meantime, is enormous. Non-fiction fans will find a book far better-written than the norm in genre. Docu-fiction fans will be fascinated by the accessible technical details and the meticulous research. Your basic reader, finally, will read the book in a single seating, grip the armrest of his comfy chair and change his mind about how he thinks we humans master the sea.

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