Sebastian Junger Criticism - Essay

Richard Ellis (review date 25 May 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Sturm und Drang," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, May 25, 1997, pp. 8-9.

[In the following review, Ellis lauds Junger's The Perfect Storm as "a wild ride that brilliantly captures the awesome power of the raging sea and the often futile attempts of humans to withstand it."]

In October 1991, Sebastian Junger was standing on the shore of Gloucester, Mass., as winds howled, waves crested at 100 feet, ships were overturned, rescues were effected, men died. In The Perfect Storm, he writes: "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. During the Labor Day hurricane of 1935, winds surpassed 200 miles an hour and people caught outside were sandblasted to death."

Junger investigated the lives and deaths of six fishermen who went down with their fishing boat, the 72-foot Andrea Gail, off the coast of Nova Scotia; he tracked the course of the storm, investigated other vessels caught in the storm, researched the training of rescue jumpers and interviewed meteorologists. The "perfect storm" of the title was bestowed on the Halloween Gale of 1991 by a meteorologist named Bob Case, who saw "perfection in strange things, and the meshing of three completely independent weather systems to form a hundred-year event is one of them. My God, thought Case, this is the perfect storm."

I once sailed to Antarctica across the Drake Passage, that infamous 600-mile strait between the southern tip of South America and the Antarctic peninsula, generally considered to be the roughest, windiest body of open water for sailing in the world. It may very well be, but we were aboard a cruise ship and, although we were all seasick as we shared stories about the dangers of open water sailing, we were in danger only of losing our lunches, not our lives. The Drake Passage is that region where so many sailing ships ran into trouble trying to round Cape Horn, and our stories imparted to our voyage a historical sense of danger, almost all of it imaginary. There is nothing imaginary about Junger's book; it is all terrifyingly, awesomely real.

The Perfect Storm is actually several stories, interlarded with the history of New England fisheries; explanations of wind, wave and weather phenomena; a detailed discussion of the phenomenon of drowning; and the training work of rescue jumpers, all of which helps us to understand and follow the narrative without having to stumble over arcane definitions.

In less competent hands, this abundance of information might impede the progress of the narrative. But, for the most part, the book—like the storm it...

(The entire section is 1227 words.)

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt (review date 5 June 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Shipwreck Story No One Survived to Tell," in The New York Times, June 5, 1997, p. C20.

[In the following review, Lehmann-Haupt praises Junger for "nicely pac[ing] his narrative" in The Perfect Storm.]

The title of Sebastian Junger's powerful book, The Perfect Storm: A True Story of Men Against the Sea, is not meant to be celebratory. Rather, Mr. Junger, a freelance journalist, intends the phrase "perfect storm" to be read "in the meteorological sense: a storm that could not possibly have been worse."

As he reports at the height of his gripping story, when Bob Case, a meteorologist in the Boston office of the National Weather Service, observed the satellite imagery of three storm systems colliding off New England in late October 1991, he experienced a dreadful thrill.

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

To be out at sea in the path of such an event would be a catastrophic experience. And so it evidently proved for the six men aboard the Andrea Gail, a 72-foot swordfish boat that disappeared off the coast of Nova Scotia on Oct. 28, leaving behind only fuel drums, a propane tank and sundry radio equipment that were found weeks later. To dramatize the incredible fury of a severe storm at sea, Mr. Junger reconstructs the fatal voyage of the Andrea Gail.

How does he manage to do this with no survivors to interview and with no details available about the ship's final hours of existence? A good deal is known up to a certain point: the layout of the Andrea Gail; the routine of a previous outing; how the crew members spent their time before leaving Gloucester, Mass., their home port; the pressure they were under to fill their hold with swordfish; the high risk of injury or death in the business; the bad feelings about the coming trip that drove two crew members to walk away before it began.


(The entire section is 880 words.)

Anthony Bailey (review date 22 June 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Tempest," in New York Times Book Review, June 22, 1997, p. 8.

[In the following review, Bailey asserts that Junger "man-ages with considerable reporting skill to conjure up [the crew's] last hours," but complains that "Not all of Junger's information is vital to his task."]

For several hundred years men have been going out from Gloucester, Mass., to fish in near and distant waters, and not all have come home: some 10,000 Gloucestermen have died at sea since 1650. Even today, commercial fishing is one of the most dangerous occupations in this country that men—and now women—can take up. In The Perfect Storm, which chronicles the havoc caused by a monster gale off the coast of New England in 1991, Sebastian Junger tells us that, per capita, more people are killed working on fishing boats than in any other job in the United States. It's safer to parachute into forest fires or be a cop in New York City. Time was when the prime danger for New England fishermen was getting run down on the foggy Grand Banks by an ocean liner or finding oneself adrift in a dory in a January snowstorm, unable to reach one's schooner. Nowadays the perils of fishing lie in highly mechanized gear—hooks running out on fast-moving lines, for instance—or in powerfully engined boats. Meant to bring home the increasingly elusive, perishable catch at speed, such craft can yet find themselves—perhaps overloaded, overstretched—in horrendous sea conditions. No wonder that fishermen suffer from frequent premonitions of disaster; as Junger says, "The trick is knowing when to listen to them."

The first half of Junger's book follows a 72-foot steel swordfishing boat named the Andrea Gail on a voyage 1,200 miles into the Atlantic in 1991. It is late in the season, and the Andrea Gail's captain, Billy Tyne, has problems rounding up a full crew of six. Some men have misgivings about the trip; one, Adam Randall, turns up to replace Doug Kosco, who has walked off the boat "because he got a bad feeling," but Randall himself looks the Andrea Gail over, has "a funny feeling" and instead of signing on goes off to a Gloucester bar. At the last minute Tyne gets David Sullivan to take his place. Gloucester bars, in fact, have a grip on the Gail's crew that Tyne has trouble breaking. Junger homes in on the crew in the Crow's Nest Inn, one of three bars that form "the Bermuda Triangle of downtown Gloucester." Swordfishermen are high rollers; they can make $5,000 or so for a 30- or 40-day hard-working trip, but quite a lot goes for continuous hard drinking during the five or six days in port, leaving not much change once child-support and ex-wife-maintenancepayments have been deducted. We meet Bobby Shatford, separated, with two children, and about to make his second trip on the Gail, in bed upstairs at the Crow's Nest with his girlfriend, Chris. It is the morning of sailing, they are hung over and somehow during the night she has given him a black eye. Bobby doesn't want to go and Chris says, Well, don't go then. But he goes—for the money; he has to.

Junger, a contributing editor at Men's Journal, gets the Andrea Gail out to sea and in the course of the six-day passage divulges much about fish, weather systems and the fishing grounds. He adds to the weight of premonition by telling us how the Gail was rebuilt in 1986 by "eyeball engineering," lengthened and—most seriously—with heavy equipment added and windage increased above decks. But we know from the start that there's going to be no happy ending to this voyage, and it is almost as a member of a coroner's jury that the reader feels bound to take in the relevant facts while the Gail rolls out to the Grand Banks at eight knots and the men prepare...

(The entire section is 1554 words.)

John Sutherland (review date 18 July 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Same Cruel Life," in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4920, July 18, 1997, p. 8.

[In the following review, Sutherland calls Junger's The Perfect Storm "a fine and moving book, which deserves to succeed."]

Sebastian Junger's publishers describe him as "a writer and adventurer". That is not, one suspects, exactly what he enters under "occupation" on his IRS tax forms, but it creates the necessary authorial bona fides for "A True Story of Men against the Sea". A Perfect Storm is, we are informed, the culmination of the author's lifelong interest in men in extreme circumstances, "out beyond where society can help them". Junger himself...

(The entire section is 764 words.)

Tom De Haven (review date 1 August 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "'Gail'-Force Wins," in Entertainment Weekly, August 1, 1997, pp. 66-7.

[In the following review, De Haven asserts that Junger's A Perfect Storm is "[f]erociously dramatic and vividly written."]

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...

(The entire section is 628 words.)