Classic review: The Perfect Storm

Sebastian Junger's nonfiction account of the lives and deaths of the six-man crew of the Andrea Gail serves as an homage to the awesome power of weather.

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    The Perfect Storm
    By Sebastian Junger
    W.W. Norton
    234 pp., $13.95.
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[This review from the Monitor's archives originally ran on July 8, 1997.] Sebastian Junger's The Perfect Storm is both a meditation on, and an exciting account of, weather gone awry. He integrates meteorological observations into accounts of the lives and deaths of the six-man crew of the Andrea Gail.

This perfect storm was in fact a once-in-a-century phenomenon in which major weather systems converged into one awesome storm. In Junger's hands it serves as title and metaphor.

In late October 1991 three major storms - one off Sable Island near Halifax, the remnants of hurricane Grace coming in from the south, and a strong, high-drifting storm from Canada - freakishly intersected. The Andrea Gail, a 72-foot steel swordfishing boat found itself at the center of a fury in which the hurricane and the Canadian high "function like huge gears that catch the storm between their teeth and extrude it westward."

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Junger explains how Bob Case, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Boston, coined the phrase in the book's title. Retrograde by definition, the term assimilates the horror and the energy that a weather devotee, professional or amateur, experiences when tracking a deadly storm.

"Meteorologists see perfection in strange things, and the meshing of three completely independent weather systems to form a hundred-year event is one of them. ... thought Case, this is the perfect storm."

The term also reflects the impeccable research that supports this solid account. Junger expertly braids together the individual histories of the six-member crew of the doomed Andrea Gail with those of the economically depressed fishing town of Gloucester, Mass., and various New England fisheries.

In lesser hands this amount of detail could sink a narrative. But here it comes together as a seamless chronicle in which weather itself emerges as the protagonist.

Junger relates facts on everything from the physics of waves to the science of hurricanes.

He writes that "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."

Despite all of its detail, however, what ultimately makes this a unique and admirable book is its portrayal of individual lives.

Junger initially focuses on the Andrea Gail's crew before they set sail. He then steps back and surveys the general scene which includes two prospective crew members who because of premonitions of the trip, walk off the job.

Once under way, the expedition continuously runs into trouble. The crew is having a hard time filling its hull with fish and must extend its time at sea to realize any profit. As it turns out, it's a fateful decision.

Junger reconstructs the last moments of the Andrea Gail's outing with details about the boat's construction, its previous trips, the communications of those who last had contact with the captain, and the compelling testimony of people who survived other severe storms.

His speculations are also buoyed by the stories of two dramatic Coast Guard rescues in areas that were affected by the storm. These episodes reflect this book's humanity. They demonstrate the incalculable value of life itself so starkly presented in the face of extreme adversity.

In the end, Junger asserts that the disturbing lack of closure for the families of the Andrea Gail's crew demands a faith that must be constantly summoned and re-evaluated.

"If the men on the Andrea Gail had simply died, and their bodies were lying in state somewhere, their loved ones could make their goodbyes and get on with their lives. But they didn't die, they disappeared off the face of the earth and, strictly speaking, it's just a matter of faith that these men will never return. Such faith takes work, it takes effort."

"The Perfect Storm" is a memorial to these men and to fishermen in general. Junger reaches out to the great chroniclers of the sea.

An epigraph that he includes from "Moby Dick" reads: "All collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it had five thousand years ago."

Judith Bolton-Fasman is a freelance writer in Brookline, Mass.

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