Gusto

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.

Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Pratt stars in Guardians of the Galaxy
film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

    The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

    What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
    Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

    Finding the names for America’s shame

    The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
    10 best reed diffusers

    Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

    Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

    Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

    There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
    Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

    Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

    It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment