Sunday, February 01, 2004

The Perfect Storm, Sebastian Junger, 1997, Read by Richard M. Davidson, Recorded Books, LLC

Apparently, when this book first came out, it made quite a hoopla, was a bestseller (I think), people discussed it, the author was on NPR, and a movie was made that won some technical Oscars.

That last point is especially telling. While there is much to appeal to the reader who likes Tom Clancy-esque novels (catalogs of war pornography with dialogue) and their emphasis on the nuts and bolts of things, The Perfect Storm never really catches fire regarding its characters. There are too many inhabitants of the book, none of them powerful enough to be the focus of the story, and Junger doesn’t waste much of our time getting to know them too intimately. Thumbnail sketches are drawn of most, a few sprinkling of background details flesh things out slightly, but no one comes off memorable in this treatment. Perhaps two of the drowned sailors and one rescue diver linger in the memory after the book is over, but in a week you’ll think, who was that guy in that book?

Most people have described the book as being about the Andrea Gail, a ship sunk during an enormous confluence of three gigantic storms off the New England coast, though the real protagonist is titular. Junger spends a great deal of space in discussing the build up of the storm, the effects of the storm, nautical conditions, etc. With its chapter headings beginning with various quotes—Melville and The Book of Revelation making the grade more than any other literature—Junger clearly wants the reader to draw comparisons to these earlier works. But what makes Moby Dick such a seminal work of the sea isn’t just Melville’s depth of technical expertise, it’s his grasp of character psychology, his pacing, and his elegant style of writing.

None of that is on display in The Perfect Storm. Certainly Junger can write a few pages of breathlessly exciting recovery scenes; the material is breathtaking to begin with. The problem is he can’t sustain us much longer than that. Once you get past the helicopter crashing into an ocean of one hundred foot waves, you’ve got to give us a reason to root for the finding of the lost pararescue jumper—and not just an appeal to the person’s common humanity.

And that’s what really is the book’s biggest weakness. You just don’t care about the characters the way you should. In the book’s beginning, we are introduced to the sailors, the captain, and the owner of the Andrea Gail. Then they set sail. Then the storm rises. Junger tells us in his introduction that he didn’t write anything fictional, merely that he interviewed other sailors and they told him what they’d have done in this situation. Then Junger goes on to write that the sailors and captain should have done this, probably did that. He extends himself gingerly out on the plank of making stuff up, then chickens out and pulls back without diving right in. Better to give us a straightforward fiction than to even bother spending as much time setting things up as he does.

The scene suddenly shifts, the characters from the boat never returning to our narrative save as device, and we’re now introduced to a rescue team as they try to save some other sailors on some other boat. This happens about three quarters of the way through the book, clearly too late to be introducing heroes to the saga.

It seems that there are three story lines going on and only two of them are in play at the same time in the book. The storm is one story line and it hits the Andrea Gail. Exit AG. The storm stays on stage, and enter pararescue jumpers. The segueway isn’t clean, and the sudden shift to new characters who make up an intrinsic and large portion of the novel is jarring and dislocating. Perhaps that was the intent, the course of the novel as difficult to pin down as a boat in a storm. It doesn’t make for a gripping read. Imagine halfway through a murder mystery ditching the detective and going off with another detective to solve an unrelated crime that just happens to be in the same city.

Junger could have made the two story lines more interlaced, introducing both groups of characters at the novel’s beginning, showing us what the sailors did prior to setting out, and running us through a bit of what the training is like for amphibious rescue teams. While the two would have wound together through the book, their lack of connection at the end would have been a jar—highlighting the impossibility of some rescues. The sense of tragedy would have been greater because you would have wanted to see these two groups connect. Even though you know there is no hope before you even start the book, the constant intercutting would have made you doubt yourself. Did they really all die? Maybe they tried and one or two got rescued.

The reader of the book, Richard M. Davidson, has a nice even timber of a voice, doesn’t make the mistake of believing that to do a passable female character he is required to pitch his voice into a high simper, and shades his tones just precisely enough to bring out the hopeless nuances in the survivors’ questions.

As one last note, Junger’s use of quotes from other sources as codas at the beginning of his chapters is a poor device of many writers. It can be done effectively if the quotes are germane to the story, illuminate the topic, or are quotes of such majesty and force that they establish a tone that hovers. Junger’s two main choices, Moby Dick and The Book of Revelation attract too much attention to themselves to work. By quoting Melville, Junger obviously wants to hearken back to that classic and to proclaim that he has written the book of the sea equal to the hunt for the White Whale. In this, he is mistaken. Almost more egregious is his use of biblical quotes. Scary, ominous quotes from Revelation are the schlocky device of third rate horror novels and juvenile fiction. They should be eschewed at every turn—unless your book is about apocalypses or about millennial themes.

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