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A deep depression has cheered up America. Dea Birkett reports; The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger, Fourth Estate, pounds 14.99
Sometimes a story comes along that is almost too good to be believable. It has hard-drinking heroes, sinewy women, and a battle between men and the elements. It has romance and tragedy, and draws on the great traditions of seafaring tales. When, six years ago, Sebastian Junger stood on the shore and watched unusually mighty swells roll over Cape Ann, he recognised the stirrings of such a story. The Perfect Storm may read like a novel, but it isn't one. It's chillingly true.

The storm of the title brewed up in October 1991, off the coast of Massachusetts. Gusts rose to 80 knots, waves to 40 feet, and yachts, container ships and vessels throughout the region were sending out mayday calls. An Air National Guard helicopter, on a rescue mission, plunged into the sea.

The Perfect Storm focuses on just six men - the crew of the Andrea Gail, a 72-ft swordfishing boat which had sailed from the fishing town of Gloucester. She had been out for more than a month, with 40,000lb of fish in her hold (a small fortune) and was heading home. Before she could reach safe waters, she sailed into "the mouth of meteorological hell".

The crew of the Andrea Gail are not difficult men to like, but Junger sets out to ensure that we grow very fond of them. This only makes the knowledge of their fate even more unbearable. Every tiny last gesture before they set sail is an agony to read. Even when they innocently went to stock up on hot dogs - buying $50 worth - I found myself screaming, "No! Put them back!" These men, real-life heroes, will die.

I have spent some days in Gloucester, and found it as Junger describes. The town was everything I wanted it to be - ramshackle, welcoming, loud with untutored male voices. I stayed with a fisherman called Jack, who lived on one floor of a teetering wooden house while his estranged wife lived on another, close enough to scream but not to kiss. When I went out in his boat, he talked about nothing but the tuna he had caught, remembering each one, how much it weighed, how he had hauled it in. His face was more lined than it ought to have been, and his eyes narrowed. If I had read about Jack and his home in a novel, I would not have believed such a person or place existed.

I had that same feeling as I read The Perfect Storm: this can't be true. Every conversation, every meeting is like one with an old friend. I know them. I have already met the fisherman Bobby, always leaning against the same bar, always blowing his money so always in debt; and I can see the curled photos of his child and torn pages from Playboy pinned up above his bunk. I have been introduced to Bobby's feisty girlfriend Chris, "an attractive woman in her early forties with rust-blonde hair and a strong, narrow face", who drinks and smokes almost as hard as Bobby. I have even heard the bar-room jokes. "What's the second thing a fisherman does when he gets home? Puts down his bags."

The Perfect Storm takes no literary risks. Two thirds of the way through - almost to the page - is the climax, and the Andrea Gail is swallowed by the storm. After this, shocked and grieving, we surf slowly to the end we always knew would come. Even the style is reassuringly familiar, and Junger is not afraid to use a cliche. "If the fishermen live hard, it is no doubt because they die hard as well," he pronounces, and I find myself nodding my head at his wisdom.

A book more awash with resonances would be hard to find. Reading The Perfect Storm is like trawling back through every watery dream, and nightmare, you have ever had. It confirms your wildest hopes of quiet heroism as well as your greatest fears.

It is hardly surprising that, when it was published in the US, The Perfect Storm went straight into the best-seller lists - and stayed there. It tells a navel-contemplating, air-conditioned American middle class exactly what they want to hear: that their country still has a wild side. More important, it's a wild side of which they can be proud. It doesn't involve illegal drugs (just vast amounts of alcohol) and it dismisses political correctness as if it were a disease. In The Perfect Storm, men hunt on the savage seas while the women wail for them back home. And astonishingly, thankfully, blissfully, it's all true. America does have real heroes. I can hear a collective whisper of "Thank God!" rising from anonymous suburbs across the US as the automatic ice machine pumps out perfect cubes of fluoridised water from the refrigerator.

Junger, who looks like Arnold Schwarzenegger with boot polish rubbed in his cropped hair, is predicted to repeat his success this side of the unrelenting ocean. His publishers intend him to follow in the wake of Dava Sobel's Longitude. But whereas Longitude embraced Englishness, this book is quintessentially American. So was the writing of Jack London and Herman Melville, to whom Junger could be compared. More fabulous than fiction, The Perfect Storm will become a classic for a jaded modern world.

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