Literature Without Apologies
In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essexby Nathaniel Philbrick
Viking, 238 pp., $24.95
The White Death: Tragedy and Heroism in an Avalanche Zoneby McKay Jenkins
Random House, 216 pp., $23.95
Lost at Seaby Patrick Dillon
Touchstone, 264 pp., $13 (paper)
The Hungry Ocean: A Swordboat Captain's Journeyby Linda Greenlaw
Hyperion, 260 pp., $14 (paper)
Jumping Fire: A Smokejumper's Memoir of Fighting Wildfire in the Westby Murry A. Taylor
Harcourt, 437 pp., $26
Good adventure books do the same thing as a good adventure. They get your adrenaline up, remind you of your place in the universe, and help you to appreciate a little more the comforts of home. Depending on the type of adventure and the story's outcome, some examples of this primarily nonfiction genre -- like travel writing, its close cousin -- can also inspire readers to take a trip, or at least a risk, in order to rediscover some of the wonderment of the natural world. At least, that's how I took it as I read through a recent harvest of adventure yarns -- harrowing tales of 19th-century whalers lost at sea to the somewhat smug, though thoroughly amusing, memoirs of an Alaskan smokejumper, the type of fellow featured in the background of dozens of news reports during this long hot summer of wildfires in the northern Rockies.
You'd correctly surmise from the aforementioned subject matter -- old-time Nantucket sailors, contemporary firefighters -- that many of these pumped-up adventure tales have little in common outside of the fact that they satisfy a craving for derring-do not often equaled in other literary realms. Though fiction can be harrowing and breathtaking, immersion in it requires a suspension of disbelief and the staying of reality, while in the nonfiction of hazard our horror and elation come from the knowledge that this stuff really happened to real people. Publishers have followed the success of such hits as The Perfect Storm and Into Thin Air by painting books involving mountains, natural disasters, high seas, or other adrenaline-inducing risks with the broad brush of adventure.
Some postmodern publishing prankster could have switched titles and blurbs on at least three of the five books examined for this piece and no one would have been the wiser. In the Heart of the Sea, Lost at Sea, and The Hungry Ocean form a trilogy of cannibalism, shipwrecks, whaling, storms, and sharks, though I dare anyone to guess without reading them which book contains which mishap. Round this collection off with The White Death and Jumping Fire, and you begin to see a pattern that should recollect the old saw: Don't judge a book by its cover.
Outside magazine has helped push this genre into the mainstream, while television's Survivor has threatened to turn the central conceit of adventure literature into little more than a soap opera about human nature. But this loosely defined genre is nothing new. Once upon a time, magazines such as True Adventure were the main source of a thousand testosterone dreams, and fiction going back to The Odyssey has been enjoyed because we're curious about people faced with arbitrary gods and uncertain fates.
But In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick bears the mark of a true-life adventure told right. It's almost a shame that In the Heart of the Sea is yet another adventure book with a blurb from Sebastian Junger (The Perfect Storm). Philbrick takes a long look at the plight of the sailors who boarded the sailing ship Essex in 1819 to hunt for whales in the South Pacific, the same journey that formed the basis of Melville's Moby Dick. Philbrick's is a well-wrought account of the very real ship that inspired Melville, who clearly knew about its fate of being struck by an enraged sperm whale, and the consequences that event had on the lives of the crew that survived.
"The days became weeks as the ship struggled against the wind and the waves in near-freezing temperatures," Philbrick writes. "In these high latitudes the light never entirely left the night sky. Without the usual sequence of light and dark, the passage stretched into a dreary, seemingly unending test of the whaleman's sanity." Melville leaves off at this point, trusting that the reader is satisfied. Philbrick, on the other hand, finds his climax not in the whale's ultimate revenge, but in the cannibalism that stemmed from the sailors' misfortune of losing their transport and most of their food while halfway around the world from home. Moreover, the book tackles such arcane territory as whaling techniques and ocean lore, as well as pressing issues surrounding Puritanism and racial biases that afflicted the crew. There is heroism in this book, but it is on a manageable scale; what is unmanageable is the size of the catastrophe in relationship to these men and the industry that sustained them. The compiling of details only adds to the reality.
In the Heart of the Sea is a rollicking if unromantic tale that re-creates, without apologies, a world in which men in small boats pursued real-life sea monsters, which is how the whales must have seemed to the terrified crewmen. Without any search and rescue crews or Coast Guard ships to assist the stranded sailors as they attempted to make their way back to land, it is impossible to imagine how they endured psychically, much less physically. It goes to show we no longer interact with the world as people once did.
Though it's a far different book, McKay Jenkins' The White Death may seem oddly similar to In the Heart of the Sea: For example, Jenkins provides a compendium of details and compelling prose that allows the reader to climb back in time. In this case, however, we're separated from the action by decades, not centuries. Despite the relative historic proximity of Jenkins' account of five young men who perished during an attempt to climb Mount Cleveland in Glacier National Park in the remote northwest corner of Montana in 1969, his tale maintains a useful distance and space for various narrative digressions. Consequently, the tragedy that drives this book is buttressed by scientific information about avalanches, the sport of mountaineering, and, to some extent, by the underpinnings of blame.
"As ephemeral as snow is in the air," Jenkins writes, "it becomes even more mysterious once on the ground, and has long been a source of rhetorical rumination for poets and scientists alike. A swirl of ethereal, airborne snow flowing over a high mountain ridge mirrors in both its aspect and physics a plume of sand blowing over a dune."
As a friend once said to me, the only sure way to avoid an avalanche is to stay away from snow-covered mountains. Jenkins is well-aware of that, although he never stoops to mention it. Instead, he builds an argument that for most serious mountaineers, death is a likely price to pay for enduring this hobby. Jenkins, however, makes the story vibrant by painting sharp portraits, and by introducing plenty of slightly off-subject information about efforts to "tame" avalanches on developed alpine ski areas and surrounding mountain towns the world over. Jenkins also notes that revolutions in gear and equipment in the years since the Mount Cleveland tragedy have allowed more and more climbers to join the ranks of mountaineers -- and like entertainment and automobiles, expeditions can now be consumed by almost anybody packing a credit card and a gym membership.
Fortunately for us, despite the fact that the characters at the heart of The White Death perish, Jenkins capitalizes on their experience to inquire at the mysteries behind not just how people behave, but how snow behaves as well. Welcome to the industry of adventure, Jenkins seems to be saying, this is how it looks to me: Some people satisfy that instinctive urge for excitement by climbing mountains. Happily, Jenkins' ethos doesn't obscure the vicarious thrill of the story he tells. There's no need for the reader to skip the digressions in order to enjoy this exhilarating, daunting trip.
Like Philbrick and Jenkins, Patrick Dillon finds harrowing fodder and worthwhile lessons in the lives of the damned. Lost at Sea, which hues closely to The Perfect Storm, examines the mystery of what happened to a pair of fishing boats, the Americus and the Altair, which sank in the Bering Sea in 1983.
"As the news spread, the Altair crew families, lacking concrete evidence that the vessel had vanished, held out hope in the face of the unknown," Dillon writes. "The Americus families, however, suffered with all the immediacy that technology could bring. Within hours after the Americus was identified, television crews from Anchorage and Seattle were en route to the Bering Sea. The image of the foundering Anacortes boat was broadcast on national television."
Dillon never allows us to forget that the lure of money, not adventure, is what prompted the young sailors to jump aboard the doomed vessels. Read enough of these books, and you learn what to expect. I don't mean to denigrate Dillon, but his work sticks closely to a formula ready-made for a screenplay. First, we get an introduction to the crew, a generally likable bunch whose various tics and flaws give them a little color, then we meet the captain, whose reputation is unimpeachable (or repugnant, take your pick), and then a taste of the industry writ large.
In Lost at Sea, that industry is the diminishing commercial fishery off Alaska, a place where shrinking numbers of crab and salmon and international competition have combined to force fishermen and to work longer hours and take bigger risks. The payoff, of course, is a big check, but that requires surviving the voyage, now, doesn't it?
With the popularity of adventure literature unabated, people who are not journalists who take risks like commercial fishing or mountain climbing often have a chance to tell their own stories. Unlike the journalists and professional writers who recount muscular tales of giant ships, elusive animals, dangerous cliffs, destructive storms, and their human toll, these individuals must strive harder or count on connections to attain a readership. Untrained memoirists -- generally survivors of a sort -- must trust that serious readers will forgive them if their talent (or ghostwriter) falters.
Without entering into a debate over the democratizing effect of literacy and the published word, it's easy to distinguish the prose of the already discussed authors from either Linda Greenlaw or Murry Taylor. Best known as "one of the best sea captains, period, on the East Coast" and the character played by Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio in the film version of The Perfect Storm, Greenlaw recounts her own story in a book that is decidedly unadventurous in tone or style. Her prose does not leave the reader with a clear impression of the passion we have come to recognize as the dedicated, hard-working figures featured in other fishing sagas. Greenlaw remains as tight-lipped and stoic as many of her male counterparts.
"Although no one had been seriously injured this season aboard the Hannah Boden," she writes, "we all understood too well the dangers inherent in commercial fishing, regarded by many as the most dangerous profession. I thought that being washed overboard and swallowed up by the sea would be the easiest way to go, if a salty death should be in my future."
She's good at finding fish and able to command the respect of both her crew and her bosses, but we're left with little sense of what led Greenlaw to live such a life, and the reason she persists. It's not that this author spends her time complaining about her lot, and for those who'd like to taste the ocean without all the harem-scarem, there's plenty going on. But Greenlaw, or at least her publisher, must recognize that the promise of excitement and adventure are like so much bait trailing in her wake. I felt a slight breach of contract at the book's conclusion. What I got was simple and straightforward, workaday writing about a workaday existence that happened to describe a life-threatening career.
Fortunately for thrill-seekers, Murry Taylor provides an antidote for almost all things civilized in Jumping Fire, his memoir of a year fighting wildfire. That Taylor ever set pen to paper is clearly our good fortune, given that his sensibilities run contrary to most literary concerns. Which is not to say that this veteran smokejumper, whose job requires him to parachute onto burning mountainsides, lacks in linguistic integrity; it's just that Taylor takes such pleasure in recounting his adventures that we get swept up in his enthusiasm. If nothing else, Taylor believes that smoke jumping is a way to avoid a less interesting death. As such, he finds great joy and humor in surviving, and provides us with that rare bird: the optimistic adventure.
Jumping Fire deals with more than just fighting fires, which is a good thing, since it runs more than 400 pages, more than any other volume in this review. The jump scenes are best, but they begin to run together after a while. Taylor provides something of a break when he writes about his failed marriage and the continuing travails of his love life. It's clear that if the author were as lucky in his professional life as in his personal life, there would be no book to enjoy. He would have crashed and burned long ago. Instead, he's suffered a variety of fractures, concussions, and torn ligaments, which apparently have mended better than his broken heart.
"Parachuting to fires in Alaska is not so hazardous when compared to the Lower 48," Taylor writes. "The trees aren't as tall, the terrain isn't as rugged. But one hazard in the north country gets the full attention of pilot, spotter, and jumper alike -- water. With treacherous, ice-cold currents, Alaska rivers are big and they are deadly. During water-landing training, jumpers are told their life expectancy in Alaska water is fifteen minutes."
No one survives a profession so extreme and dangerous for so many years without coming away with both horrifying and funny stories. Like the fishermen he seems to unconsciously emulate, Taylor thrives under duress and away from the civilized masses, and his writing reflects that sensibility. The shit flies here, both figuratively and literally, as we are treated to a cursory overview of the rituals of those individuals who fight wildfires in the United States. I know firsthand from drinking elbow to elbow with some of these characters that they are an irascible and boisterous lot. Taylor makes an excellent interpreter as we travel with him through the wilds of Alaska and the Northern Rockies. Given this season's extreme fires across much of the West, Taylor more than puts faces on the men and women who figure in his story; he gives them wings. In so doing, this smokejumper manages to provide the one account out of five that actually makes a fellow wonder if it might not be fun to pack it in and go experience the worst Ma Nature can throw at us. But each of these books, even The Hungry Ocean, finds a way to show the reader that a life lived close to the edge, where accidents happen, also holds great rewards. The advertisers of sport utility vehicles know this, too, but books provide us with an honest way to articulate our connections to the world. When done well, the volumes of adventure show us how to maintain grace under pressure and the risks that follow when we don't.
Dan Oko is an Austin freelance writer. His articles have appeared in Outside, Audubon, and Sports Afield, and he's a regular contributor to the Chronicle's Politics and Books sections.