Review

The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger

“October 1991. It was “the perfect storm”–a tempest that may happen only once in a century–a nor’easter created by so rare a combination of factors that it could not possibly have been worse. Creating waves ten stories high and winds of 120 miles an hour, the storm whipped the sea to inconceivable levels few people on Earth have ever witnessed. Few, except the six-man crew of the Andrea Gail, a commercial fishing boat tragically headed towards its hellish center.”

Have you ever gone into a book with a certain set of expectations, only to find that you built the book up to be something that it wasn’t?  That’s how I feel about The Perfect Storm.  The title is even a good representation of those feelings: disparate chunks of story being thrown together into a maelstrom that causes chaos where they meet.  It’s not that this isn’t a compelling tale, but I think Junger mis-stepped when he chose to focus on the fishing vessel Andrea Gail.  Maybe that’s the fault of the marketing folks who wrote the back cover copy, or those who sent out descriptions of the book to stores and libraries.  That’s what I went into this narrative believing that I’d find–a recounting of the last moments of the doomed vessel.  Instead, I got something quite different.

The book starts out zeroed in on the crew of the Andrea Gail as they readied to head out fishing despite storm warnings.  Through interviews with those close to the men, Junger can give readers an accurate portrait of the day the boat set sail.  The problem arises once the boat leaves dock.  The Andrea Gail crew only had a few communications with others once they left for the fishing grounds, and no contact with anyone from around 7pm or so on the night of their disappearance.  This forces the author to talk about what might have happened as the storms intensified, what they may have done as they found themselves in the teeth of the gale, what the boat might have gone through as it was destroyed.  But there is zero evidence for any of what he says.  Granted, he never tries to portray his scenarios as the gospel truth, but the mere fact that so little is known makes the choice to focus on them a little odd.  My thought is that the choice was made based on the fact that the Andrea Gail seems to have been the only boat to end up in the “perfect storm”, the area where three powerful storms met.  There is one moment in the book where Junger does seem to state something as fact with no supporting evidence, however: he says that around midnight is when the catastrophic event occurred (whatever it was) to bring the boat down, but at no point after that does he offer a shred of proof for that statement.  If I missed something in my reading, I’d be more than happy for a correction on that.

The second half of the book mostly follows other boats and their crews in different parts of the storm-ravaged sea.  These people are mentioned in the earlier chapters as well, but Junger abandons the Andrea Gail to tell the stories of other people who actually survived the storm.  This is where I thought the narrative got more compelling, because there are actual eyewitness accounts of the power and destructive nature of the storm.  Knowing that you’re following along as people fight for their lives is a much more nail-biting tale to read than one which relies on “maybe” and “could have” so much.  Part of the draw of this section also is the fact that one of the rescue helicopters sent out to help evacuate sailors from their doomed boats turned out to need rescuing too.  This section of the book definitely has more tension; you already know the Andrea Gail is lost with all hands, but you don’t know the fates of the people on the other boats.

So, if the Andrea Gail is one storm, and the other boats are the second one, what about the third?  That is comprised of all of the background material that Junger weaves into the narrative.  Some of what he showcases is information that is a great help in getting a sense of what happened over those few days, things like describing how such storms are formed and what makes them collide so disastrously.  I feel that the explanation of the fishing industry on the East Coast is helpful too, as he helps readers understand why the sailors went out in spite of storm warnings.  Some of the info, though, just isn’t needed.  There may be those who find the descriptions of every bit of gear on a swordfishing boat to be interesting, but there’s so much more included than is actually needed for clarity.

I think that this book’s main problem boils down to one of pacing.  I can see myself getting much more invested in the book as a whole if Junger had balanced all the various pieces more.  Relegating the Andrea Gail to the first half of the book and then having almost nothing about them in the second half gives rise to false expectations of what the book will be about.  Personally, I would love to see a re-editing of this book that spreads out the Andrea Gail‘s story through more of the book, interweaves the weather information at the same pace as the gathering storm, and then lets the events play out in the last third or so of the book.  What Junger has here is a mesmerizing tale of survival in one of the most hellish situations imaginable, and the fact that I found it to be somewhat choppy makes me feel like this book could have been so much more than it is.

I will still recommend it, though.  Just be aware that all of the hype about this book will give you an incorrect idea of what it covers, so please go into this knowing that there’s so much more to it than you  might expect.  Despite my misgivings about the pacing, the story is well-written and is most definitely going to draw you in to the life and death struggles of the men and women who faced one of the century’s greatest storms.

This book was a personal purchase.

(Description nicked from Goodreads.com.)

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