DOASKDOTELL BOOK REVIEW (books of Sebastian Junger)

 

Author: Junger, Sebastian.

Title: The Perfect Storm: A True Story of Men Against the Sea;  and Fire

Fiction? Anthology?   (Fire is a series of separate episodes)

Publisher:  Simon & Schuster; W.W. Norton

Date: 1997/8; 2001

ISBN ISBN 006101351X ; ISBN 0-393-01046

Series Name:

Physical description: hardbound and softcover;  hardbound

Relevance to doaskdotell: Male roles in defending others how society depends upon dangerous occupations 

Review:

This best-seller by Sebastian Junger is a harrowing account of the fate of a (swordfish) fishing boat, the Andrea Gail, in one of this century's most violent eastcoast storms, at the end of October 1991, when a hurricane and noreaster combined. The resulting storm (rivaled perhaps by the East Coast Blizzard of March, 1993) produced pressures so low and a circulation so huge that, a thousand miles away in the upper midwest it produced the notorious Halloween Blizzard as it sucked moisture off the Hudson Bay. With slightly different circumstances, the surge from a storm like this could, as it got trapped, flood lower Manhattan under twenty feet of water.

Junger's attention to detail was fascinating, even if "morbid" at times (as when he provides a scientific explanation of drowning). More important, however, is the social point he is suggesting. Even at the end of the millennium, many men still make their living, providing for families, paid only for “libertarian style” piece-work, in dangerous occupations, work which forces them to bond together in military-style fashion (sometimes requiring living in close quarters with no privacy). Other examples of this in "civilian" life would include oil rigs (the movie Armageddon) and mining, especially during the era of company towns in West Virginia and in the iron country of northern Minnesota. Columnist Kim Ode reports that Junger said at Edina, Mn book-signing, " There's no way for a young man today to show he's strong and brave and willing to risk his life for the one he loves. That instinct is in every 15-year-old-boy." On ABC "Good Morning America," we were reminded of this point when a 19-year-old young man of Albanian descent but born and raised in Brooklyn was interviewed for going over to Kosovo to fight with the K.L.A. in order (as he put it) "to honor my father." As conservative writers like George Gilder have pointed out, many men, indeed, have no other source of personal identity. Junger, who looks extremely strong and vigorous in person at his booksigning parties, indeed does own a lot more psychological independence than the subjects of his writing; according to media accounts, he lives his own life as a journalist on the edge, once getting shot at in Bosnia.

Much of Junger’s writing describes the technical details of seamanship and manages to present the characters in an engaging manner. Indeed, he will have to “presume” what must have happened to them in the “perfect storm” based on his own science.  But Junger may be showing a certain distance from them when he writes (on p. 91 of the Harper Paperback) :

“By the end of a long trip they may be picking fights with one another, hoarding food, ostracizing the new members—acting, in short, like men in prison, which in some ways they are. There are stories of sword boats coming into port with crew members manacled to their bunks or tied to the headstay with monofilament line. It’s a kind of Darwinism that keeps the boats stocked with rough, belligerent men who have already established themselves in the hierarchy.”

Indeed, this sounds to me like a characterization of grunts, 11 Bravo’s, the kind of somewhat disadvantaged and uncultured young men that society depends upon to do its dirty, dangerous work, and to do its fighting and dying for the rest of us. Remember student deferments? 

It's unusual for good non-fiction to make the best-seller list quickly; but Junger, for all of his social consciousness and technical virtuosity in sciences, still makes this journey a good exercise in story-telling, the kind we learned in grade school. Junger has created an surprisingly effective story-telling vehicle in which to explore many important social issues regarding an "average" man's precarious place in society; few non-fiction books today offer and balance this combination so successfully. Let's hope that Junger takes up the novel as his next art-form. I understand that A Perfect Storm will be a movie, and I look forward to it. (Warner Brothers [fresh with its corporate musical trademark based on Casablanca] is due to release it on June 30, 2000.)

Notes on the film, released June 30, 2000 (starring George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, directed by Wolfgang Petersen, music by James Horner), 130 minutes, PG-13.

This film release surely made a red-letter day for the author.  It has been a tremendous success at the box office (as has the book itself sold over 4 million copies).  So Junger’s “concept,” to explore a social and political issue in a relatively obscure subset of “other people” surely works, as he made these people interesting. The film is bifurcated, between soap-opera in the first 45 minutes to introduce the “buddies” on the Andrea Gail (and the sociology of the Crow’s Nest bar, which comes across as a heterosexual Julius’s), followed by men’s magazine style adventure, as the “perfect storm” grows like a monster in a horror film.  The characters are a bit routine for me, but not the situation.  The men, paid by libertarian piece-work for their swordfish catch, hurry back through the storm when the ice-maker fails.  They just can’t live without the money, so they behave like sailors at the Battle of Midway.  Well, that’s the skipper’s idea.  The penultimate scene, with Wahlberg floating in the water and alive for the moment but doomed to die of exposure and hypothermia, comes across as more chilling than DiCaprio-character’s death in Titanic.  The manipulative virtuosity of Junger’s writing about what it is like to die this way comes true.

***

There was a bruhaha over a similar review that I wrote on America OnLine’s Twin Cities Digital City movie forum.  A reader complained to me both by email (with rather unprintable words) and on the board that I had rudely usurped attention on the board, by pretending to write a “professional” movie review so that I could snobbishly vent my own personal contempt at the “lower class” or “working class” men depicted in both the book and the movie. For example, I hinted that a story about journey fishermen probably would not have been interesting to the public except for the extraordinary writing skills of author Sebastian Junger in his book.  Well!  Class warfare, maybe?  I cannot deny that in my own mind I have entertained a certain contempt for the “uneducated” even if I know intellectually the enormous complexity of our society and the fact that people start out at different places in line.  Perhaps this goes back to the days of student draft deferments during the Vietnam era, a topic I cover ad nauseum in my own DADT book, Chapter 2. It also recalls my own father’s lectures to me as a boy about the necessity of “hard manual labor” and my resistance to it. However, one of the values of Junger’s book (and his other writings) is pointing out how we all depend on the sacrifices and risks taken by men (sometimes women, too) doing dangerous work—most obviously, to my mind, the military, the police, and certain other occupations, and commercial fishing is one of them. (Hence I link this to all the discussions about the military gay ban.)  Junger, it will be remembered, “paid his dues” as a tree-cutter in the early 1990’s and was once seriously injured when a chainsaw sliced behind his ankle—in fact, “the perfect storm” took place while he was recuperating and had the leisure to follow it.  (See US Weekly, July 24 2000, article on S.J. by Oliver Jones on p. 54).  But all of this does bring back these questions of social justice, shared sacrifice, and so on, that we used to take more seriously in earlier generations than we do today.  The movie and especially the book may indeed be experienced on more than one level.  Sometimes we do need to get serious.

 

I have just picked up a copy of Junger’s new book, Fire, published by W. W. Norton, ISBN 0-393-01046-5.  I’ll mention a comment by Junger after he “paid his dues” with his tree-climbing accident:

“The accident was sloppy and unfortunate, but it made me realize that I didn’t want to be a climber abd struggling writer forever. I was thirty years old; I should either tackle a book project or get out of the writing business altogether.”

There follow a number of true “men’s adventure” stories, including pieces about Kosovo and Sierra Leone, and finally, Afghanistan. Junger gives a chilling account of his journalistic autumn 2000 “vacation” (??) with forces fighting for Ahmad Shah Massoud against  the Taliban, as recently shown with videos on ABC and on Frontline. Junger may know as much about the new shadowy enemy in our new war on terror as any non-government civilian (although a few other journalists now have book projects on Osama bin Laden).

There is an interesting story (by Adam Langer) about this author in the Sept/Oct 2001 issue of Book.  Apparently he is a pretty avid chess player, too.  Don’t know whether he would play the Benko Gambit.

On April 18, 2006 CNN Anderson Cooper presented Sebastian Junger’s report “A Murder in Belmont”, also Junger’s new book by the same name, WW Norton, ISBN 0393059804. Junger grew up in Belmont, MA, a suburb of Boston, and in 1963 a black handyman Roy Smith was convicted of a strangling of an elderly woman living there. The Jungers had actually employed Albert De Salvo, who would confess to the crimes of the serial killer known as the Boston Strangler. Junger researches whether De Salvo actually committed the Belmont murder, and it appears that his own parents might have been in jeopardy of one of De Salvo’s crimes.

 

I recommend checking out a National Geographic Explorer film, shown several times on MSNBC during the terrorism crisis of 2001, Under Fire, with considerable commentary by Junger.  There are battle scenes between the Northern Alliance and the Taliban, with Junger hiding in foxholes while reporting.  There is a statement that Massoud, in resisting the Russians in the late 80s, was critical to the whole collapse of Communism.  There are interviews with POW’s from the Taliban, loyal to Osama bin Laden, in which there are chilling predictions that terrorism will soon erupt in the West on a grand scale and that there is a deliberate intention to impose a fundamentalist Islam as far as possible, These interviews were done in the fall of 2000, about a year before the attacks. The scenery is eerie in its breathtaking, almost extraterrestrial beauty.

Checkout also a film on Afghanistan by Lon Sherman, Beyond All Hope, also on MSNBC.  Perhaps these films could be combined and distributed for theatrical release.

Also, CNN is showing two stunning documentary films, Beyond the Veil and Unholy Wars, about the Taliban in Afghanistan, by Saira Shah, who had to travel into Afghanistan on foot, crossing high mountain passes while wet and hypothermic, to make her films.

French journalists very recently had a film shown on MSNBC of life deep within Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, in which in one scene a soccer game is stopped for a public execution (shown on camera) in the stadium.

The MSNBC film “Norman Schwarzkopf’s Diary” of the 1990-1991 Persian Gulf War should also be noted. Colin Powell and former President Bush and explain why the United States did not continue the war to evict Sadam Hussein from power.  

 

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