The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger (audio)

In October 1991, a number of factors converged to create a storm of inconceivable strength off the Massachusetts coast. Vessels large and small struggled in its path, and a few didn’t make it out. Sebastian Junger follows a few of the men, women and boats involved in this remarkable work of nonfiction. He begins by introducing us to Bobby Shatford and his girlfriend Chris, and their town of Gloucester, Mass. Bobby and Chris wake up hungover – Bobby has a black eye – and drive around town, visiting with friends and Bobby’s mother Ethel, bartender at the Crow’s Nest, and making final arrangements for Bobby’s departure on the Andrea Gail, a small fishing boat with a crew of six. We then follow Bobby’s path and that of his fellow fishermen: the two men who get funny feelings and refuse to sail with the Andrea Gail, and the five who join him on her for an intended 4-week fishing trip. We track their fishing, the decisions made by their captain Billy Tyne, the radio communications between Tyne and other fishing boat captains. We watch the storm approach, checking in with meteorologists and getting quick lessons in storm formation, and we visit other boats as well, including the Satori, a 32-foot sailboat, and the Eishin Maru, a Japanese longliner, both fated to have complications and exciting moments. We also get to know two rescue crews, made up of Air National Guard pararescue jumpers and Coast Guard rescue swimmers. I won’t give too much away (although, all of this being a matter of historical record, it’s out there), but not all of the characters introduced survive the storm.

That’s about all I want to say about the events detailed here; you can find out more by reading the book yourself (or listening to the audio, as I did – more on that in a bit), which I highly recommend. And here’s why. This is an incredibly adrenaline-pumping adventure tale. There are sad endings for some of the men and women involved, yes, but there is also great heroism, amazing skin-of-your-teeth survival, drama, even a love story or two mixed in. The human interest, in other words, is huge. For excitement, really, could you ask for more than rescue swimmers jumping out of a helicopter into the storm of the century to rescue men and women from sinking ships or from the open ocean? I submit that you could not.

In addition, the story is told in a unique way. Junger jumps subjects throughout: we meet a few characters in Gloucester, then we review the fishing history of the town of Gloucester, then we study up on commercial fishing for a bit, back to the characters… eventually we get lessons in meteorology, the physics of boat building, wave formation, and what exactly happens when a person drowns. As I wrote before, Junger is fairly strict and journalistic in following the facts. Where parts of the story he tells are unknown, he doesn’t claim to know, but he does interview people who have been through similar scenarios and survived; so we get an educated estimation of what the players might have been through, while making nothing up. It’s a method I respect; I found it both dramatic and fully-wrought, and reliable.

The audiobook I listened to is excellent, too. Read by Richard M. Davidson, it has all the taut, tense action it needs without ever feeling over-dramatized. And as a bonus, it includes a recording of the author speaking about the making of the book. This flows like his-side-only of an interview; I imagined someone in between asking specific question. Like the foreword, I found this a substantial addition. At the time of the storm, in 1991, Junger was working as a high climber, taking trees down for a tree company, and selling freelance magazine articles for a living. The storm inspired him, and he wrote a chapter about it, initially for a book he conceived about various dangerous jobs: the commercial fishermen of Gloucester would have been joined by loggers, smokejumpers, forest-fire fighters and the like. But his agent landed him a deal for a whole book about “the perfect storm” – whereupon Junger became anxious. How would he fill a whole book with just the storm? he wondered. (I loved hearing the author, in his own voice, discuss his nerves! And the whole process, really.) So he decided to follow all the sub-plots and related topics he could, to flesh it out, and this is why we are treated to the lessons in weather, boats, the fishing industry, etc. What struck me about this is that it is a rather Moby-Dick method, and ironically, while that classic work of fiction is notoriously difficult to read (come on, even its fans admit this, right?), this work of nonfiction – even though readers often fear nonfiction will be dry or cumbersome – flowed delightfully and effortlessly. Those subplots mightily enriched the whole. Even the questions left unanswered, about the fates of those who disappeared and whose remains were never found, Junger turns to advantage. As he says, because he investigated the experiences of others who lived through similar situations, we get a richer, more layered story than had he interviewed a sole surviving fisherman.

Sorry for another long review! (Usually this means I really liked the book.) In a nutshell: moving, emotional, adrenalizing, scientific, faithful, thrilling! Check it out.

Rating: 8 swordfish.

EDIT: I also reviewed the movie, here.

11 Responses

  1. This really is a great book. I’m not sure I could have done the audiobook though, because there’s so much information packed into this novel and I would have had a hard time following it. But there really are a lot of intense sequences in it.

    Great review!

    • Hey, thanks, Chris!

      I have been listening to a lot of audiobooks; I spend so much time in the car that it really increases my available reading time a lot. I’m hooked. But I think you have a valid concern. I definitely take more notes (and give my blog readers more quotations!) when I read a print book. So, there is some compromise involved when I listen to audiobooks. But I still find it worthwhile.

  2. good review! love the continuing dialogue about historical fiction (of course) and the way you treat it

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