Who’d have figured that bad weather — really bad weather — would enthrall beach readers this summer? In late October 1991, the Andrea Gail, a swordfishing boat out of Gloucester, Mass., was returning home when a freak convergence of three storm systems engulfed it several hundred miles off the coast of Nova Scotia. With shrieking winds and waves like piggybacked dinosaurs, the ”Halloween Gale” was a once-in-a-century event, a fisherman’s worst nightmare, or, as Sebastian Junger calls it, The Perfect Storm. While Junger’s surprise best-seller (no serial killers! no sex! no Hollywood!) encompasses everything from meteorology to shipbuilding to the rough-and-tumble sociology of New England port towns, his focus never strays far from the promise of his subtitle: A True Story of Men Against the Sea. In the clash between the sea and the men of the Andrea Gail, it was no contest — the sea won.
Unlike mariners in the fiction of Melville or Hemingway, few of the Andrea Gail’s fishermen seem to have had any mystical attachments to the ocean. (Depending on seniority, a crewman on a sword boat can make between $5,000 and $10,000 a month — or if the fishing is bad, he can earn practically nothing.) It was the lure of fast money that persuaded Billy Tyne, Michael Moran, Dale Murphy, Alfred Pierre, David Sullivan, and especially young Bobby Shatford (who was being threatened with jail for nonpayment of child support) to ignore any misgivings they had about fishing the Grand Banks so late in the season.
As Junger re-creates the crew’s last, anxious day in port — their time divided almost equally between bar-hopping and preparing for the trip — it might strike you that not much about a fisherman’s life has changed in 100, even 200 years. For all of a modern boat’s high-tech trappings (including a VCR and plenty of movies), its crew is still prone to hard drinking, black moods, and superstition. And when bad weather blows — as it did four weeks into the Andrea Gail’s ill-fated voyage — six able-bodied seamen inside a 72-foot-long welded-steel vessel are scarcely less vulnerable than their ancestors were on wooden ships.
”More people are killed on fishing boats, per capita, than any other job in the United States,” Junger tells us. But lest we romanticize the ”clean” death of fishermen at sea, he also tells us, in horrific detail, precisely what it’s like to drown: ”When the first involuntary breath occurs most people are still conscious, which is unfortunate, because the only thing more unpleasant than running out of air is breathing in water.” The excruciating description, more nightmare inducing than anything Stephen King ever cooked up, continues for several more pages.
Once the Halloween Gale — which included Hurricane Grace among its component weather systems — slammed into the North Atlantic, the men of the Andrea Gail were doomed. Except for a floating cluster of fuel barrels, a propane tank, and a radio beacon picked up days later, the fishing boat vanished completely, and its small crew joined the estimated 10,000 Gloucestermen who have died at sea over the past three centuries. Reports of ghostly visitations to loved ones at home add a shuddering, almost mythic coda to the shipwreck, though they can’t mitigate the tragedy.
But Junger’s riveting account of this savage nor’easter has its share of triumphs as well; and because it includes a number of ”meanwhiles” — intercut stories of other ships and aircraft caught in the same fury, with miraculous in-the-nick-of-time rescues — the narrative exhilarates as often as it terrifies. Well, nearly as often.
Ferociously dramatic and vividly written, The Perfect Storm is not just the best book of the summer. It’s an indelible experience. A+