The Perfect Storm
Sebastian Junger Lydia Bird
Norton, North Point
"Meditation and water are wedded forever," wrote Herman Melville in Moby Dick, suggesting that it is metaphysics as much as money or adventure that draws people to risk their lives at sea. Two recent books follow in Melville's wake, offering accounts of life and death at sea that are really meditations on human nature, on how far we can defy the elements, and how much we can know of ourselves.
Both books are by journalists who write for popular magazines such as Outside and Sports Illustrated, and both reflect the influence of contemporary journalism on our literature. In many ways, they owe more to the genius of Henry Luce than to that of Melville.
In The Perfect Storm, Sebastian Junger recounts the last, fatal voyage of the Andrea Gail, a Gloucester, Massachusetts, fishing boat that went down off Nova Scotia in 1991. The boat and its crew of six disappeared as a huge storm from the Great Lakes and a hurricane moving up the coast from Maryland collided over it an event that meteorologists refer to as a perfect storm, meaning that it couldn't be worse, and which Junger describes simply as "meteorological hell."
Junger's portraits of the crew members are vivid, visceral accounts of the life of sailors and skippers in the swordfishing fleet, both at sea and in the harbor towns where they spend all their money, drinking and fighting and making love between voyages. He describes lives that push life to its limits, at sea or ashore. "If the fishermen lived hard," he writes, "it was no doubt because they died hard as well. In the industry's heyday, Gloucester was losing a couple of hundred men every year to the sea, four percent of the town's population. Since 1650, an estimated ten thousand Gloucestermen have died at sea. . . . Sometimes a storm would hit the Grand Banks and half a dozen ships would go down, a hundred men lost overnight."
After describing the punishing and dangerous routine of a deckhand's life at sea, Junger adds, "The only compensation for such mind numbing work, it would seem, is equally mind numbing indulgence. A swordfisherman off a month at sea is a small typhoon of cash. He cannot get rid of the stuff fast enough. . . . The money is pushed around the bartop like dirty playing cards, and by closing time a week's worth of pay may well have been spent."
Around these lives, Junger weaves a tapestry of fact and detail, history and science, commerce and politics, navigation and meteorology that engages the mind as the saga of the Andrea Gail going down fixes the heart. This interweaving of information and drama is the mark of Lucean journalism in America, the stamp of Time-style on American letters, and Junger is quite good at it. The unfolding tragedy of the Andrea Gail is interspersed with fascinating asides on the ice business (without which we wouldn't be eating fresh fish), how sound travels underwater, navigation techniques, the history of the U.S. Weather Service, the mechanics of waves, and so on.
The fabled and treacherous Grand Banks, we learn, constitutes an extraordinary ecosystem, its waters "shallow enough to allow sunlight to penetrate all the way to the bottom. An infusion of cold water called the Labrador Current crosses the shoals and creates the perfect environment for plankton; small fish collect to feed on the plankton, and big fish collect to feed on the small fish. Soon the whole food chain's there, right up to the seventy foot sword boats."
This is a style that depends on lots of facts and numbers. For example: "A mature hurricane is by far the most powerful event on earth; the combined nuclear arsenals of the United States and the former Soviet Union don't contain enough energy to keep a hurricane going for one day. A typical hurricane encompasses a million cubic miles of atmosphere and could provide all the electric power needed by the United States for three or four years."
Junger is a good storyteller, although he had to reconstruct the events of the Andrea Gail's last days by inference (it lost contact during the storm, so no one knew exactly when or how it sank). He relies on others' accounts of shipwrecks and near drownings, and simply speculates on how the Andrea Gail's crew acted, and how they reacted to their fate. In writing of the crew's dying moments, this technique sometimes leads Junger into soap opera ("These thoughts shriek through the mind during the minute or so that it takes a panicked person to run out of air").
Junger has written an exciting and readable story, but not one that rises from journalism to literature. Maybe what gets lost when Luce replaces Melville as a muse is the metaphysics, the ability to make life and death meaningful in ways that are more memorable than the mere facts.
A different tradition inspires the writing of Lydia Bird's Sonnet, an account of her single handed voyage across the Atlantic in a 42 foot sailboat. Here is the kind of post Lucean personal journalism that prefers the "I" to the "it," threading the world through a needle of subjective experience. The Atlantic that Bird takes us across is not an objective sea of facts but the watery realm of a writer's psyche.
Bird's account is expanded from the diary she kept during the voyage, recording everything from engine problems to her dreams. There are heavy seas and storms, windless days and equipment failures to cope with, but throughout Bird's narrative most of the drama is psychodrama. She writes of her marriage, her parents, her boat, but her mind is on her moods. From Maryland to the Azores, she is alone; on the rest of the passage to Greece she is joined by other women. Yet neither solitude nor intimacy seems to help Bird escape her own afflictive emotions. "Tough passage," she notes in one entry. ". . . Fighting demons, not big seas." There is some fine writing in these pages. At her best, Bird can sketch in an immense seascape with a few strokes, as she does in this entry: "No ships, little speed, blue sea and sky, happy. Leg exercises, book to read, slosh of water."
But more often the prose is awash in waves of introspection. After she has made the passage from the New World to the Old World, she retreats belowdecks for a major cry. "It was having crossed an ocean without feeling a flush of success," she explains. "It was doing this thing I'd wanted so intensely to do, without really feeling I'd done it."
When Melville wrote that "Meditation and water are wedded forever," this was not the sort of meditation he meant. In Bird's watery world, metaphysics has been eclipsed by a kind of postmodern absorption with self. While the tale of her voyage is engrossing, a more expansive view of the world would have served her--and her readers--better.
Freelance writer Paul Trachtman lives in rural New Mexico.