Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Perfect Storm

"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 water. At that point...the drowning begins in earnest.*"

It's sentences like these that initially kept me from reading Sebastian Junger's _The_Perfect_Storm. I have a healthy fear of water. As far back as I can remember I've had dreams of sinking boats or being swept out to sea. I put this down to growing up on an island (even if it was the Island of Staten) and spending a large amount of my childhood at the beach. Don't get me wrong--I love the ocean, but It is large and I am small. I had no interest in _The_Perfect_Storm because I thought it would give me nightmares and make me afraid to set foot in any water deeper than a clogged-drain puddle for about 6 months (have I mentioned that I have a lively, morbid imagination?)

In addition to my original fear of the text, I have the book snob's abhorrence for any book that has been around for a while but is suddenly popular because It Was Made into A Movie or Oprah Read It.

But I got over all of that about two weeks ago. My best friend and I were perusing her library. We are bibliophiles and we shop each other's libraries shamelessly. We are also former booksellers--so we hand sell our own books to each other.**

"Read _The_Perfect_Storm." She said.

I responded by saying that I hadn't read it because it scared me.

"Oh but it's fascinating! No one knows what actually happened to the boat, so he fills the gaps with all sorts of other details about the industry--he writes *around* the unknown parts. You can skip the part where he explains what drowning feels like."

I didn't pick the book up then, but after her description I was hooked. I picked the book up two weeks later. And she was right--it is fascinating.

The book is about the last few weeks of the Andrea Gail--a swordfishing boat that sailed out of Gloucester. I *love* Gloucester. I love the beaches, I love Stage Fort Park, I love having breakfast at Sugar Mags or Zeke's (where the cook is a woman and they do toads in the hole and grits). I love watching the boats come through the narrow canal where the draw bridge is, I love hiking in Dog Town and going out on the breakwater to watch fishermen haul in stingrays--still alive and jumping, I love Bass Rocks, Destino's subs and I even love the Ugliest Guest House on the Promenade.

My Gloucester is not the same Gloucester that the characters in _The_Perfect_Storm encounter. They are fishermen. I am a Bougie from Beverly who's there for Sugar Mags and the beach.

A week ago I was in Gloucester with my Mom and my Aunt (who had read _The_Perfect_Storm_.) As we drove past The Crow's Nest my Aunt asked if my buddies and I ever went in there. "No. We mostly come here for breakfast at Sugar Mags. We would be out of place there. The Crow's Nest is a place for other people-not for us." Writing this down it sounds snobby, but really--it's a fisherman's bar and we are not fishermen. If I went there with my buddies the locals would think that we were either Perfect Storm tourists or Bougies who were slumming/looking to cruise a sailor.

Sebastian Junger has done a good job of making the denizens of the Crow's Nest-people who would otherwise fly under my radar (and probably yours--if you're being honest) sympathetic characters. The people in the book are swordfishermen. Swordfishing involves going out to sea in dangerous conditions and working 20 hours a day doing dangerous and/or gross work for a month at at time.

"Baiting has all of the glamor of a factory shift and and considerably more of the danger." ***

Baiting involves putting squid or other bait on a hook on a long line along with buoys, and radio transmitters see here for details. The fishermen put about $20,000 of gear in the ocean every time they set a long line, which is to say every night they are out.**** Also, it's apparently very easy for the man who sets the bait on the hook to get caught on the hook and pulled out to sea. The men who do this work are often high-school drop outs and men who owe a lot of money (for child support as crew member Bobby Shatford does.) The author does not romanticize his characters--he gives enough spoken dialogue from surviving family members to make them human.

And the details are fascinating--everything from the physics of ocean waves to the way that boats call out that they are entering Canadian waters and all their fishing gear is stowed.

My obsessive little heart loved the fact that every time the fishing boats pull into port they overhaul the engine. "Imagine" I thought "Downtime to do a complete overhaul before putting a system back into production. I wish I could do that."

In the end I even read the parts that describe drowning. I found the book a good read not just because it was fascinating, but because the logic of the narrative is so obvious. The author gives definitions of a number of objects--his characters (through their surviving family members' words) and nautical terms (down-flooding, long-line fishing etc.) and then constructs his narrative with these objects. He gives examples of what might have happened to the Andrea Gail and then reinforces his credibility with accounts of what actually happened to several other people who experienced the perfect storm and lived to tell about it.

So I give the book two thumbs up.

Once I took the Boston Harbor Ferry out to one of the islands for a day trip. When you take the Boston Harbor Ferry, they narrate your trip. They point out the islands and other places of interest as they pass them (including Deer Island's ginormous sewage digesting tanks.) One of the places they pointed out the pier where they hold a fish market at Fuck You O'clock in the morning. It's there that the restauranteurs go to buy what will be their "Catch of the Day." I like to imagine that as a place where men and women in Armani suits from Legal Sea Foods, Number Nine Park and Locke Ober go to talk with men like Captain Billy Tyne of the Andrea Gail--fresh off a voyage in a flannel shirt and jeans. They would discuss subjects of mutual interest--the quality of fish and the Sox over a cup of coffee.

This, I admit, is a romantic fantasy. Captain Tyne sold his fish on the pier at Gloucester to seafood distributors and Legal and the other restaurants probably deal with those distributors, but I like my fantasy because I like the idea of legitimate business people-Suits-having to bargain with the fishermen and giving them a fair amount of money for the fish that they worked so hard to pull out of the ocean.

*_The_Perfect_Storm_ Sebastian Junger, 1997 page 180 in the mass market edition.
**If you're a bibliophile the need to get people to read books that they would enjoy is baked into your OS (Operating System.)

***Page 64
****Page 83-84

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